Tuesday, 30 Dec 2014

Written by Igor Zinkov

Jewish values

All day I was humming to myself the Eric Clapton song “Tears in Heaven” after I read this week’s Torah portion “Vayechi” (Gen. 47:28-50:26)

Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven

(E. Clapton, “Tears in Heaven”)

Eric Clapton wrote this song after an accident in which his four year old son died. He put his emotional experience into lyrics and now we can share his feelings through listening to this song.

Maybe something similar was in the mind of our forefather Jacob when his sons brought him the news that his 17-year old son Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast, although he was actually sold into slavery (Gen 37:33). Where Eric Clapton’s questions were left unanswered, Jacob was blessed to experience the miracle of meeting his son again. After the reunion Jacob spent the remainder of his life close to Joseph in Egypt.

We notice that Jacob has been living in Egypt for 17 years under the auspices of his son before the end of his life (Gen. 47:28). Interestingly, Joseph was a 17 year old young man when he was sold into slavery (Gen. 37:2). In biblical times it was an essential principal of existence and the highest value, to support your elderly parents. Maybe the Torah, therefore, emphasizes this importance and brings us this example where Jacob looked after his son for over 17 years and he was looked after by his son over the same 17 years in the end of his life?

Jacob is about to pass away but he leaves his children with an oath to bury him in Israel, in the Cave of Machpelah. Therefore, Jacob transmitted his values to the next generation – to live in freedom in an independent land. In spite of the quality of life in Egypt being much higher than it was before the family moved there from Canaan, Jacob explicitly wanted his descendants to leave Egypt. He chooses the most special moment to ask about this – the moment where he said “…Behold, I die; but God will be with you and bring you back unto the land of your fathers”. (Gen 48:21).

I can imagine how dramatic this moment was for Jacob. He realized that he was running out of time. He probably thought hard before he expressed this to his family.

At the very end of this portion we see Joseph, transmitting the same request to his children and grandchildren saying: “…and ye shall carry up my bones from hence” (Gen. 50:25). Yes, Joseph could not fulfil his father’s dream but he tried to inspire future generations to do it. Later on our sages articulated this idea into a very famous saying:

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it”
(Avot 2:21)

Soon we will read in the Torah the story of the Exodus, when the Israelites will carry Joseph’s bones to the Land of Israel and the promise will be ultimately fulfilled. W. Gunther Plaut brings a very interesting comment on this Torah portion in his “Modern Commentary”. The word “Aron”, which is used for Joseph’s coffin (Gen. 50:26) is the same word which the Torah usually uses to describe the Ark of the Covenant. Therefore we can assume, that the Israelites carried two “Arons” over their period in the wilderness. One is the symbol of God’s covenant with the Jewish people from Sinai and the other one is the symbol of the connection between the generations of Exodus and the generations of Joseph and Jacob. Therefore we can see an enduring process of the transmission of values from generation to generation.

Which values would we like to transmit to our children and how do we do it? Yes, it is complicated, because now we are much bigger than only one family. And even inside one family it is complicated. The Torah portion illustrates it very well when Joseph’s brothers are afraid of his revenge after their father’s death. They told him that the last will of their father was to “forgive the transgression of thy brethren” (Gen. 50:17). There is no indication that Jacob said this to anybody. Was this a lie? The Midrash comments on this extract: “Peace is very valuable! Even the tribes made up a story in order to maintain the peace between them and Yosef” (Bereshit Rabbah, 100:8). Our sages don’t justify that. They don’t say that Jacob told this, but it was skipped in the Torah. Rather, they understand the reality and accept the fact that people sometimes lie and use “made-up stories”. However, in this case they accept it as a tool, the aim being to achieve peace.

Our world is much more complicated than it was in the time of our patriarchs. Today we have to deal not only with our inner questions and troubles, but take into account all the world’s concerns. Terrorism in Pakistan, violence in the Ukraine, financial crisis in Russia, difficulties with Jewish-Arab relationships all over the world – all this cannot be avoided today by the Jewish community. We should be active in all spheres and try to bring our values with us. Today we are the children of Israel, the children of Jacob. Today we are responsible for keeping and transmitting our values. Jacob found a way to do this, today it is our turn. We live in the real world and so we should try to listen to Eric Clapton’s advice and, despite everything, “[we] must be strong and carry on ‘cause [we] know [we] don’t belong here in heaven”

Student Rabbi Igor Zinkov

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.