Like the parasha “”Chaye Sarah” (the life of Sarah), which immediately tells of her death, this week’s parasha is called, “Vayechi” (and he lived), though the text is all about death. At the beginning, it is Jacob’s death that is described, and it takes up the bulk of the parasha. At the end, it is Joseph’s death that is told. Both father and son are embalmed, and mourned in an Egyptian fashion. However, both father and son ask that they not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of their ancestors. Both father and son die at peace with their sons and their legacies.
This is a parasha of transition. It is the end of the book of Genesis. The story moves from being one of the generations of a particular family to that of a particular people. Israel, the man who used to be called Jacob, will be Israel, the nation.
This week’s parasha comes to us at another point of transition, that of the secular New Year. I write this on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2015, in the quiet of a cold winter afternoon. There are those within the Jewish community who pay little, if any, attention to the Dec 31/Jan 1 transition; after all, “our” New Years was a few months ago. But I would suggest that, just as Israel’s sons Menasseh and Ephraim straddled the cultures of their Israelite lives and the Egypt that surrounded them, there is value in our doing the same.
People make all sorts of resolutions at this time, something we don’t tend to do for Rosh Hashanah. Sort of. At Tishrei, the Hebrew month of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is a seasonal transition at this time, as we move from summer to fall. We are tied to the stages of the moon in our “natural” calendar, and we clearly begin again, with a new moon cycle. We look back and see where we missed the mark, recount our regret for those moments, and pray that we would be judged with mercy, regardless of those moments. We don’t sit in synagogue and say we’re going to keep to a diet. This is a spiritual transition, one that often calls us to cleanse and renew ourselves.
January 1 is different, but no less powerful. The dividing line between December and January seems more arbitrary, and there is certainly no seasonal distinction. We are in the middle of the dark time of the year. But we have just passed the Winter Solstice, ten days ago, and the days are ever-so-slightly getting longer, as we move toward spring. We engage in a different sort of acknowledgement. We celebrate, look forward, resolve ourselves to better habits and new endeavors….like keeping to that diet.
Just as Jacob’s and Joseph’s deaths marked a transition between living in a more insulated, tribal-based society to that of a separate nation living amongst other nations, we can see January 1 in a similar light. We can acknowledge both moments in our lives, one perhaps more inward-looking and the other perhaps more outward-looking. Past and future, poised between both.
In this parasha, too, we read that Jacob/Israel blessed Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim before he died, and it is this blessing that many Jewish parents use around the world to bless their sons. Why bless in the name of these two sons? Commentators talk of two reasons: first, as Laura Geller writes in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (p. 300), “could it be because, like so many Jews throughout history, they grew up in the Diaspora and still remained Jews.” The second reason often cited is that these were the first two brothers in the entire Genesis narrative that didn’t fight with each other for blessings. A noble reason to invoke their names, indeed.
The two New Years, the two sides of ourselves, don’t have to fight for blessings either. Let us embrace both for what they can offer, and how they can enrich our lives.
Wishing you a very happy 2015….and a continued happy 5775!