Vayachi: January 14, 2017

Shabbat Shalom

This week we prepare to finish the Book of Genesis. After weeks of following the chronicles of the Patriarchs of the Bible, we close the story with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, the settlement of Jacob’s family in Egypt and we have set the stage for the even larger story of the enslavement and emancipation of the people and their journey to the Promised Land.

As Jacob lies dying on his bed, his 12 sons gather around him and Jacob offers to each a final blessing. For some of the sons he has fond memories, for others, he remembers their moments of disappointment and failure. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, who only gave blessings to their children, Jacob points out, at the end, the hurts and pain some of the sons have caused him. Like his father and grandfather, clearly Jacob shows favoritism, Judah and Joseph at the expense of Reuven, the first born, who is criticized for his behavior along with Shimon and Levy.

Artists have tried to depict what the scene must have been like, as the B’nai Yisrael, the sons of Israel/Jacob gathered to hear the last words of their father. This week, my teacher and my colleague Rabbi Eliezer Diamond of the Jewish Theological Seminary compared the medieval art of Francois le Barbier describing the scene of Jacob blessing his sons to the depiction 200 years later of Gerard Hoet.  The difference is striking. Barbier has a gentle scene of the twelve sons bowing respectfully by the bed of their father as he offers them each a blessing. It is a picture of the ideal death, with the family surrounding the bedside and the father showing appreciation for their presence.

Hoet, on the other hand, shows a scene that is filled with noise and confusion. The brothers are standing like a hoard of petitioners, each one vying for their father’s attention. There is a nurse in the foreground who clearly is upset that the brothers are keeping her from tending to her patient. Jacob is in bed and his hands look like he is pleading for calm and quiet. Dr. Diamond notes that we may wish all death bed scenes were like Barbier, but most often they are similar to Hoet. Everyone wants to get in the last word before their father dies.

The theme of endings and beginnings is on the mind of every American as we prepare for the transition of power to a new President. One book is ending and the other is just beginning. One has set the scene for the other. We hope for a peaceful transition of power but more often than not it is a messy scene of people vying for attention and jockeying for political position. It may not always be as organized as we would like it to be but considering that in many countries the only transition of power is by gun, not ballot, we have a lot to be grateful for in the United States.

Unlike the Torah reading, nobody died this week in our country, but we did have a farewell from President Obama. For almost an hour, he spoke to the nation for the last time. I found it an interesting speech for a couple of reasons. First, that it was as long as it was. Past presidents have given much shorter speeches from the Oval Office and listed their accomplishments. President Obama spoke from an auditorium in Chicago in front of thousands of people. But he also gave a rather unusual speech. Yes, it did include his accomplishments of the past eight years, but he spoke about them only as they reflected on his vision of the future.

And, unlike so many other commentators today, Obama spoke about a future that was neither apocalyptic nor dystopic. He spoke about the need for people to never be afraid of the future and to work hard, every day, to defend their freedoms. That we can have a wonderful future if we don’t become too complacent and let others limit the freedoms we enjoy. He noted that the country, by every metric, was better off now than it was eight years ago. Our country is not perfect, he reminded the audience of supporters, but the last eight years have shown what is possible when Americans work together and embrace common goals. We can disagree over how to solve our problems, but we should never forget that even our political enemies still want what is best for our country. Obama pleaded with people to engage in discussion, to understand opposing points of view, and set our country on the right path to meet the future.

I wonder if anyone here remembers that I spoke about the future last Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year is about looking ahead, not backward. We put behind us all the mistakes and sins of the past year and face the future free of the entanglements of the past year. I spoke about Alvin Toffler, the author of “Future Shock” who taught that if we don’t prepare for the future, it will happen without us and we will be in shock with what we find as the world changes. If we don’t plan for the future, we will get someone else’s future, one that may not help us and might only make someone else rich at our expense.

President Obama noted that many Americans have retreated into an echo chamber. We only hear the news we want to hear and we only believe that which fits in with our notion of how the world is to be. Anything that disagrees with our understanding is “fake news” and “unreliable sources”. But to really know what is going on, we have to engage with those who have different opinions than we have. The point is not to try and convince them that we are right, but to take account of their concerns and reservations about how they see the world.

In my favorite poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling there is a verse that says, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.” It is hard to make a decision when we don’t have all the facts. When we don’t listen to those who doubt us, we miss important facts that we need to point us to the way forward. Conversation, debate and compromise are the ingredients to make not just political decisions but family decisions and business decisions as well. We can plan for the future better if we know in advance where the pushback will come from and “make allowances for their doubting too.”  None of us are perfect, not us, not the commentators, not the opinion writers, not the politicians and not even our must trusted friends. I can also tell you that shouting at someone does not make you more right.

In the Torah, Moses certainly had his detractors. As a result, he made many changes in his leadership to accommodate their concerns. He created judges and tribal chieftains to help lead the people and even the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the desert, was a compromise for those people who just could not conceive of a God without some place to focus their faith and spirituality.

I want to remind everyone that shouting also can cower us into silence and that is not good either. Recently a friend of mine told me about a cousin who spoke out on an important issue and has received, through social media, scorn and abuse. Someone published his address so now he can’t go home and the FBI and local police are investigating death threats that have been sent in email and on Twitter. Freedom of speech is one thing but it relies on civil expression. Hate speech and public shaming often cross the line. The fear is clear and present. The only question is if we will allow it to shrink us back into our bubbles and prevent us from the discussions about where we will go in the future.

We have to be bold about the future. One black minister recently said, “We are going to cross the sea. We are going to part the waters and march across. I don’t know if it is a Red sea or a Blue sea but we are going across anyway.” The issues often break down into categories that others set up to limit the discussion. Many of these choices are false choices. That is why, when we consider the future, we must first ask ourselves what is the right way to act? What is the right way to go? Will this bring peace and kindness to the world or more hatred and discord? Who will get hurt or who will be healed? Who will benefit and who will be left behind?

And yes, you are right, this takes time and effort. Everything that is important takes time and effort. If it was free and easy, we would not have the problems we have when we face the world. I know that we work hard and we come home tired and worn out. I have those kinds of days as well. But we can’t just give up our future because we need some sleep. Each and every day we must set some time aside to figure out where we want to go and how we plan to get there.  Just remember that we don’t move forward by looking back. As Rev. Joel Osteen says, “When you drive home today, you’ve got a big windshield on the front of your car and you’ve got a little bitty rearview mirror. And the reason the windshield is so large and the rearview mirror is so small is because what’s happened in your past is not near as important as what’s in your future”.

We just ended the first book of the Torah. We just finished a secular new year. We could look back and consider the path that we took to get here but that will have no effect on our future at all. If we want to create a better future for ourselves, for our families, for our community and for our nation, we have to focus our attention to what is coming so we can navigate to the place we want to go. As the band Fleetwood Mac might sing” Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, don’t stop, it will soon be here. Soon be here, and better than before. Yesterday’s gone, Yesterdays gone. Don’t you look back.”

Maybe the end of Genesis is not as idyllic as we might want it to be, but we can have a better future if we dream of what might be and then work hard to make it happen.  We pray that God will guide us to the future that will bring us health, life, hope and peace as we say.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, January 14, 2017.