Vayechi: The Blessings

Genesis 47:28-50:26

Vayechi is the story of Jacob blessing his sons. And, I would be remiss in not noting, is the last parshah in the book of Genesis. We’re at the edge of a transformation.

The parhsah tells us of the blessings, and of the death of Jacob. It tells of Jacob being buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs, with the bones of Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah. And it tells of Joseph’s request that in the future, when Jacob’s descendants leave Egypt, his bones be brought out with them. It’s a story bounded by death, by blessing, and by prophecy.

I think this parshah is literally about planting the seeds of Jacob, and metaphorically about creating the nation of Israel. I also think it’s about creating oneness out of many diverse parts. Because both Israel the nation and we as individuals function as complicated, multi-faceted, and too often compartmentalized, beings.

At its heart, the parshah is a mirror of the wholeness we can create when we achieve integration. Whether that’s by transcending our tribalism or by learning to be our truest and best selves.

That integration is a process it takes a whole Torah to tell. It doesn’t happen all at once, just because we wish it did. And it’s not self-sustaining, just because we’ve glimpsed it or stood at Sinai.

Like the Jewish year, this learning cycles back on itself, offering daily opportunities to teach us more and again. If we do our karmic homework, we can get to the promised land. But there’s a whole lot of mitzrayim between now and then.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’ve been blessed!

These blessings give us much to hope for and much to aspire to. We carry within us the seeds of leaders and kings. Of priests and scholars. Seafarers, schoolteachers, soldiers, and olive growers. We’ve been given the swiftness of a deer and the ferociousness of a wolf. We’ve been blessed with fertility and beauty.

That’s a lot to carry around. No wonder we sometimes want a break, a chance to lighten up from this whole chosen people gig.

Imagine for a second that you could make yourself into the shape of a mandala (a big round wheel). Then go through the blessings, one by one, and map yourself into wedges. If you feel particularly wise or just, make a mark out towards the rim of that particular wedge. But if you’re too quick to anger, or the downside of some other blessing, then mark it closer to the center of the wheel.

If you connected the rims of those wedges, you’d probably have a pretty lumpy wheel  And that’s how most of us go through life, bumping along on a lumpy wheel.

Instead of rolling sweetly and swiftly into the Holy Land, we tend to tumble roughly into some abyss. Break a couple bones or hearts, and after some famine of love or nerve, we end up in Egypt. In mitzrayim. In this very human land of living, feeling, and doing, where we’re asked to do our work. To labor. To make bricks. To learn our lessons. And to keep learning and re-learning them. Until the pain of slavery becomes so great that we’re finally ready to break free.

Here’s a quiz: Do you more often think of yourself as a deer or a coach potato? Do you choose Shabbat, or the Ducks game?  Do you live a life of goodness and service? Or do you bumble along like the rest of us, causing messes it takes time, effort, and the occasional apology to clean up?

The truth is you’re not whole until you’ve claimed each blessing’s attribute, and also integrated its shadow part.

And it’s exactly the shadows around which you have the most resistance that are the ones you need to be willing to claim. To say Oh yeah that’s me. Not necessarily the me I’m proudest of, or love the best. But a me I know well, a me I wrestle with like Jacob wrestled with the angel. Wrestled until he became both wounded and renamed. And out of that wrestling – be it with angel, self, God, or with plain old laziness and recidivism — emerges Israel, emerges the seeds of wholeness.

Later, after the exodus, when the tribes are assigned places in the desert encampments, the Levites and the Holy of Holies are placed in the center, and the others strategically around.

This correlates to aspects of self, of personality. To which traits we show the world, and which we keep most hidden. Which inspire pride and achievement, and which inspire fear or shame. And which like our holy spark, we protect so closely that sometimes we forget it needs air, needs to be witnessed, to shine.

It’s ironic, even sad, that it’s exactly our holiness that many of us keep most hidden. We strive to “succeed.” We showcase the mundane. But we don’t always allow our goodness to be seen.

The blessings are both literal and metaphor. Identify for yourself the qualities you think comprise a good and whole person, or if you like, a good Jew. You can pick twelve or as many or few as you want. Honesty, goodness, compassion, courage, equanimity…. Everyone will have their own list.

Some dark and stormy night, when you’re neither joyous nor melancholy, stand in front of a mirror and light a couple candles. Close your eyes. Take a few breaths. Think about one of those traits. Then open your eyes and really look deeply at the person looking back at you.

Can you find those aspects in yourself? Are you more willing to acknowledge your good parts? Do you shy away from the harder places? Or do you scold yourself for where you feel stuck, and forget about the progress you’ve made? Does tomorrow loom like another long day making bricks under a hot Egyptian sun?

Nicely, mystical Judaism has given us a great paradigm to work with, a way to reconcile each aspect and its shadow. The Tree of Life, the kabbalistic representation of aspects of the divine, is set up in triangles. That’s how I suggest you wrestle with the blessings you aspire to.

Here’s an example. There’s an attribute, say Chesed, which is about infinite divine love (Rabbi David Cooper uses the image of whipped cream pouring out of the bowl), whose counterpart is Gevurah, which represents discipline and restraint (Don’t drown the strudel). And there’s a resolution, a point where those two attributes merge and create balance. In this case Tipheret, which is about harmony, beauty, and compassion. (Lift your fork and enjoy.)

As you do the mirror exercise, ask how each aspect, both blessing and its shadow, serve you. Not only in their highest idealized sense, but in your current you. The you who’s evolved from your personal history, from the torah of your own being in this lifetime.

Look at the parts of yourself you’re often too afraid to embrace. Look at the parts that you cling to, that make you feel safe, even if they keep you a slave. Keep remembering that wholeness is possible. But unless you’re willing to risk profound and honest dialogue–with yourself and with God– you’re going to stay a tribe, not create a greater being.

Always remember that at your core is your inner Levite, your holy spark, your intrinsic goodness. The part of you that’s hard-wired to leave mitzrayim, and to help make this a better world, to do tikkun olam.

We talk about thinking globally and act locally. We need to start by healing ourselves, and then share that healing. It doesn’t get any more local than you.

Steve Shankman talks about “other others.” The point is to recognize that “other” is self. There’s nothing other can do that we’re not capable of. And there’s nothing we cannot want, feel, or aspire to that other does not also experience. If you can grasp that, it’s harder to start wars than to share a meal. Harder to fight than to build. If you can get your consciousness there you’ll become more compassionate and more caring. More willing to share your blessings.

Like the greeting Namaste, we salute the holiness within one another. Each bow is a tikkun olam that should remind us of the fullness of our blessings.

My own return to Judaism came through the 22 letters. After decades as an eclectic seeker I was called back like I’d been lassoed. The letters spoke to me. And in the lexicon of the mystical alphabet there’s a story, a myth, of the 23rd letter. It’s sometimes spoken of as a shin with a fourth spine. It’s the letter of the Moshiach, the letter of the world to come.

So how do we find this missing letter? We have to go into Egypt. We have to suffer through slavery. We have to want freedom completely enough to be willing to change, to risk security to find wholeness. And we have to embrace that process with deep kavannah, with devout intention.

That’s what gets us to Eretz Yisrael, or to any personal goal. It gets us to what we call “ the world to come.” Dara Horn, a contemporary Jewish writer, has a book called TWTC with this marvelous 20-page, sequence where the unborn souls are taught before incarnating in a kind of karmic pre-school.

It’s almost like being at Sinai: seeing sound, hearing colors, all the senses alive in multi-dimensional ways. A complete and integrated awareness of how all aspects of self and soul interact. About how we, as individuals and a society, can learn to share Jacob’s blessings to create this world to come.

The story says that just before we’re born, an angel presses us just above the lip. And instead of remembering all our blessings, as we come in we forget them. We’re sent back here, to do our work. To labor, and to remember. To create the world to come out of this mitzrayim we live in every day.

Doing tikkun olam by making our bricks. As schoolteachers, healers, lawyers, or artists. Each in our own way. In the highest and best manner of our individual blessings.

Through your intellect and your courage. From your swiftness or your fierceness. Your beauty or your fertility. Become your realest and fullest you, your most authentic self, whatever that is.

Because the rest of us need that from you, and from one another, and from ourselves. That’s how we’ll make the world to come.

Shabbat shalom.

– Helen Rosenau, TBI Eugene Dec 17, 2010