Between the Lines—Va-yehi

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis 49:1–2

And Jacob called to his sons and said, "Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come (literally, 'the end of days'). Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob; Listen to Israel your father . . . "

Genesis Rabbah 98:3

אלעזר בן אחוי אמר מכאן זכו ישראל לקריאת שמע בשעה שהיה יעקב אבינו נפטר מן העולם קרא לשנים עשר בניו אמר להם שמעו אל ישראל שבשמים אביכם שמא יש בלבבכם מחלוקת על הקב״ה א״ל (דברים ו) שמע ישראל אבינו כשם שאין בלבך מחלוקת על הקב״ה כך אין בלבנו מחלוקת אלא ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד אף הוא פירש בשפתיו ואמר ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד

Eleazar b. Achavay said: From [this passage] here, [the people of] Israel merited recitation of the Shema'. When Jacob our Patriarch was departing from the world, he called to his 12 sons and said to them: 'Listen to the God of Israel, your father in heaven. Is there perhaps division in your hearts about the Holy Blessed One?' They replied: 'Hear, O Israel (Deut. 6:4a) our father! Just as there is in your heart no division from the Holy Blessed One, so too is there none in our hearts. On the contrary—The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!' (Deut. 6:4b). [Jacob] likewise uttered with his lips, saying, 'Blessed be the name of God's glorious sovereignty forever and ever!'

What kind of legacy will we leave when we die? Much of our fear of dying is similar to Jacob's, as described in this week's Torah portion and further imagined in the midrash above. We worry that our ideals and our values will not survive among the next generation.

While these ancient texts attest to this legitimate concern, at least one contemporary scholar, the Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz (1897–1957), has contended that our anxiety about the uncertain future in fact represents a hallmark of our heritage:

In the beginning, Israel's message was that of a universal optimism—salvation, happiness, and perfection for all peoples . . . In more recent times, most Jewish ideologies and political movements were dualistic inasmuch as they saw the world divided, Israel and world torn apart—nay, still more: Israel itself was to them no more . . . Both made the fundamental mistake of dividing the people of Israel into two parts. It must always be considered one and indivisible: yisrael ehad. As long as one part lives in a hell, the other cannot live in paradise . . . what we need most at present is a dynamic Jewish realism that will . . . show us the real meaning of that fear of the end that is so inherent in us. A people dying for thousands of years means a living people. Our incessant dying means uninterrupted living, rising, standing up, beginning anew . . . if we are the last—let us be the last as our fathers and forefathers were. Let us prepare the ground for the last Jews who will come after us, and for the last Jews who will rise after them, and so on until the end of days. (Israel, The Ever-Dying People-and Other Essays, pp. 62–63)

How might we recover the optimism of our people's origins, rather than succumbing to this recent paralysis of divided hearts and fractious pessimism? Jacob and his sons, in their call and response in the midrash above, exemplify the power of affirming God's eternal presence and power. Perhaps if we listen more intently to the words of the Shema', we may rediscover the purpose of our calling as Jews, which is to demonstrate God's infinite unity through unending love for our nation, Torah, and Creation.