Every three or four years, more or less, we read this week's parashah / Torah reading on the Shabbat preceding New Year's Eve . . . so we are watching the book of Breishit/Genesis come to a close along with the secular year.
It's an evocative combination: A calendar year comes to a close, the first book of Torah comes to a close, the life of a patriarch comes to a close . . .
Like the time leading up to the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, this week or so in the secular calendar is a time for both looking back and looking forward. Amidst the unrelenting hype of post-Christmas sales, we are meant to consider the events and actions and relationships of our lives and resolve to do better. Despite the ads by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, I imagine that these new year's resolutions should go beyond the number of pounds we promise ourselves we'll lose in the next calendar year.
The end of the book of Breishit/Genesis marks the end of a foundational text of the Torah. In Breishit we witness the creation of the world culminating in the creation of humanity and the establishment of the principle of Shabbat. We watch the first bumpy steps in the relationship between God and the most uncontrollable element of creation: curious, vindictive, disobedient, faithful, courageous, loyal, principled . . . people.
At the end of his long and eventful life, Jacob lies on his deathbed surrounded by his family in the closing chapters of Breishit. Jacob metes out judgment. At the end of his life, he reviews not his own behavior and actions, but those of his progeny. Son by son, Jacob evaluates past actions and comment's on that son's character: Reuben is "unstable as water"; Shimon and Levi are "tools of lawlessness . . . cursed be their anger . . . I will scatter them in Israel"; Judah--"the scepter shall not depart from Judah...and the homage of peoples shall be his"; Asher's "bread shall be rich". And like his father, Isaac, delivers a death-bed blessing to a younger son: to Joseph he says "The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills . . . . "
In Israel, New Year's Eve is referred to as "Sylvester", a nod to the non-Jewish roots of the festival. According to the Hebrew version of Wikipedia, the festival of the last night of the year called Sylvester in Israel and in some European countries is associated with Pope Sylvester I ( who served as Pope from 314 to 335) who died during the night of December 31st - January 1st. The date is, thus, a sacred day of remembrance within the Catholic world, and has become an international day of festivity since the Gregorian calendar became the internationally accepted standard with no thematic connection to Pope Sylvester, of course.
A week like this, when we re-watch the death-bed scene of Jacob's and are encouraged to contemplate the consequences of our actions by virtue of the ticking over of another calendar year, we should consider, perhaps, what Jacob did not: the aftermath of his own actions.
When Jacob died, surrounded by his twelve sons (and, one supposes, his daughter, Dina, although she is not mentioned) the Torah reports: "Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (50:1) Reuben, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Shimon, Levi, Naphtali, Benjamin, Zevulun, Judah . . . nothing. By this account, Jacob has left behind one bereaved and eleven disaffected sons. Probably in shock at hearing their father's final words to them.
A few verses later, and we find those eleven brothers turning to Joseph contending that their father had left instructions that Joseph was to forgive his brothers their offense of selling him into slavery and then they offered themselves as slaves to Joseph. Jacob has left behind a dysfunctional family whose only hope for healing is found in the favored son, Joseph. Joseph does indeed, bless his brothers will healing words: "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--the survival of many people. And so, fear not, I will sustain you and your children." (50: 19-21)
It is not his father's love that has inspired Joseph to such maturity and perspective, but the opportunity provided to him by God to reach for, and attain, lofty goals . . . to feed those who might otherwise starve. From such experience, the dysfunction of his own family must seem easily addressed: compassion comes easily to Joseph after all his life experience.
There is value in taking the time to stop and consider our actions and our behavior and our relationships from time to time. If that contemplation is triggered by the ticking over of the Gregorian calendar year, great! Any moment of self-reflection that draws us into an evaluation of that which motivates us, inspires us, shapes our actions and guides us in our relationships with those we care about is a good moment, whichever calendar we're looking at.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.