Vayehi 2015: Ensuring the Covenant in the Diaspora

Rabbi Rachel Ain – December 26, 2015 

Can you believe it? A Jew could have been the vice president of the United States? In the year 2000 were both shocked and fascinated by the fact that Joseph Lieberman had the potential to be the Vice President of the United States. Why were they shocked? Well, who was he? A Jew? Did he look like the others? Would he be a Jew first or an American first? We know that although it did not come to fruition that he would be in the role of the vice president, there have been many Jews who have held high ranking positions in this government. And so, we shouldn’t be surprised then, that a boy from the Jewish community was able to rise in the ranks and become the 2nd in command in a nation not inhabited by Jews, but by another culture of people with potentially different values, hopes, and dreams. This boy Joe, who grew into Joseph, and then once the 2nd in command, known as zephanat paneach, his given Egyptian named, brought his family, from his homeland, into his new found community.

He shared with them the wealth, the wisdom, and the culture that he had assimilated into as he lived in the palaces of the Egyptian kingdom. This Joseph was however, different from modern day Lieberman, for he was, for a time, so assimilated into the Egyptian culture, that even his father did not necessarily recognize him.

And so, in this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayehi, the final parasha in the book of Genesis, which concludes the family narrative of our matriarchs and patriarchs, Jacob, will take the time, to look out, speak to his children, and his grandsons, and find ways to communicate the importance of the covenant that was made with God, so that, even though they were living in the lap of luxury, with the freedoms that comes with democracy, so to speak, that they would remember their connection to their community.

How does Jacob do this? First, when Jacob is on his deathbed, and Joseph hears of it, Joseph comes to see his father. And so Jacob says “El Shaddai appeared to me in the land of Canaan and he blessed me. He said to me: I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples, and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.”

You see, Jacob immediately reiterates the covenant to Joseph? Why? Because remember, this is all taking place in the land of Egypt and Jacob, literally, is having a hard time recognizing his family.

And so, the second thing that he does is that he asks Joseph to bring his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, close to him, so that he can adopt them so to speak. He says they shall be mine and they shall receive a part of the inheritance. Although this sounds strange, you can picture the moment. Jacob is terrified that as soon as his grandchildren’s generation, the covenant will disappear, and it will not be remembered. And so, Jacob wants to take the time to impart his values to his grandchildren. But his eyes were dim and it was hard for him to recognize his grandsons, without the help of Joseph. Although this commonly means that he was dying, I would propose that it means that they were hard to recognize. That they had become so much a part of the Egyptian culture that they were beginning to shed the identity that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and been developing for 3 generations.

After having this intimate moment, he then extended his reach to include all of his sons. He gathered them together and began telling them what will befall them in days to come. He looks at each of them and recalls his hopes and dreams. He asks that when he is buried that he be buried not in the land of Egypt, but with his fathers in the cave of Machpleah, in the land oc Canaan, the land that God has promised to the people.

You see, Jacob understood that there needed to be an honest discussion about the covenant. I would argue that he started the conversation a bit to late, and he didn’t necessarily do enough to self reflect and see where he might have failed, but…this narrative still gives us the opportunity to look at our community today.

You see, this is not so different than challenges we face today. In each generation, religious leaders look out to their community, especially as they get older and think about retirement, and wonder, what must be done to ensure the continuity of the Jewish community. They wonder when did the challenges begin? What were the motivating factors? And what can be done to reverse the trends.

For me this issue isn’t only continuity, though that is clearly important, it is also meaning. I have always said, there needs to be reason for continuity. Last week Rabbi Rubenstein stood at this pulpit and reminded us that we are Jews for something-to be a light unto the nations; to make the world a better place; to not rest on our laurels but to get up and engage. Judaism gives us the tools and the language for doing it-what is powerful, is that we do it in community.

Rabbi Jerry Epstein, the former CEO of USCJ in reflecting on Conservative Judaism once said, “we must remember that our prime goal Is not just conserving our synagogue but conserving authentic Jewish life.”

And so the question is, that I ask, is what is an authentic Jewish life? For this answer, I turn to Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of the most famous Conservative Rabbis and prolific writers of our day. He once wrote, “Looking back, he says it was the French revolution as the moment that transformed modern Judaism because it gave Jews choices about how to live both as Jews and countrymen. He said that it was just as traumatic and paradigm shattering for the Jewish people as was the destruction of the temple in 70 CE because it ushered in an age of democracy and individualism, empowering people to make choices about their own lives. It defined people as individual rather than as members of a group. Thus the formula by which equal rights were extended to the Jews of France: To the Jews as a people, nothing; To the Jew as an individual, everything.

Kushner, sees the 21st century, like Jacob might have seen his sons, like Yochanan Ben Zakkai say his people after the destruction of the temple. That we need to rebuild in the face of a new paradigm. Kushner says that we need to reinvent Judaism, in a way that the Rabbis always do during times of crisis and transformation, in a way that will help meet the needs of people to fulfill their human destiny and make God a constant presence in their lives in an age when the currency of Jewish loyalty and faith will no longer be obedience but the pursuit of holiness.

When Jacob said to his sons: V’shimu el yisrael avichem-listen to Israel your father, the rabbis imagine that they responded by saying “shma yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad”-affirming that they heard their father, play on words “yisrael” and they will continue the covenant.

And so, what will we do, now that we are in the 21st century. We need to make sure, like Jacob that we take care not only of our kids but our grandkids. We need to work as a community to educated everyone’s children. We need to focus on education, engagement. We need to create a community that fights the tide of assimilation. We need to remind people the importance of coming together to proudly be Jewish and to proudly live Jewish. UNAPOLOGETICALLY.

The covenant was at risk in Egypt. Many believe that the covenant is at risk today. In fact, there was a very sad moment this past month when Chief Rabbi Lau criticized Education Minister Naftali Bennett for visiting the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, the school my children attend. After Bennett’s visit, where he tweeted that there was love of Judaism and love of Israel, he was lambasted for going to a non-orthodox institution, since Lau believe that anything non orthodox will kill Judaism. Unfortunately, what he missed is the ingenuity of people like Jacob, and like Yochanan Ben Zakkai, and of what is taking place at my children’s school. That if we affirm our Jewishness and our Jewish way of life, we don’t need to be concerned. But it takes work.

As our head of school, Ben Mann, wrote,

“Celebrating Hanukkah this past week at Schechter Manhattan, the strength and depth of Jewish connections our students are making was obvious. We started our days singing the ancient words of Hallel, joyously and proudly. We studied about Hanukkah in our classes. Our elementary school students learned about the customs, rituals and themes of the holiday while the middle school students studied selections from classical texts such as the Talmud, Mishne Torah and the Siddur about the history and practices of Hanukkah, grounding their observance in the sacred texts of the Jewish people. We came together with parents and friends for a beautiful zimriyah song festival, filled with Israeli favorites, connecting us to the culture and people of Israel.

As is clear from these examples, at Schechter Manhattan we live a vibrant Judaism, marked by dedication to serious engagement and joyous expression; grounded in our holy texts and practices and also situated firmly in the modern world. Bennett saw that too, as he tweeted the day he visited, it was clear to him that Schechter Manhattan is full of love for Judaism and Israel.
We believe the combination of the knowledge and experiences that students are afforded at Schechter Manhattan with the deep respect for each student’s relationship with his or her Jewish identity empowers students to find the Jewish commitments that will be most meaningful to them. And that is what will ensure the future of the Jewish community, young people who have integrated and strong Jewish identities.”

We need to gather those that we care about and speak about the covenant. We need to help shape destinies. And we need to do it in a way that will be heard. And then proudly say: Shma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.