What Christmas Looks Like – Parshat Vayechi 5776

What Christmas Looks Like

As a rabbi, I’m always studying religious customs and traditions – it comes with the job. And this time of year, it’s hard not to notice Christmas. It probably comes as no surprise that Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and bargains like “Happy Honda Days” weren’t part of the Christmas celebrations of two thousand years ago. What is fascinating is that the Christmas holiday of the 1800s to the present bears no resemblance to what church officials established around the fourth century C.E.

For the first few hundred years after the death of Jesus, only Easter was celebrated; there was no such thing as Christmas. Once it was determined that Jesus’s birth would also be commemorated, church leaders decided to create a winter holiday that would draw on popular customs of various solstice celebrations. Historians believe the drunken revelry was actually similar to the Mardi Gras of today. Then in the 17th century, Puritan orthodoxy had no tolerance for this type of behavior, and Christmas was even outlawed for two decades in Boston.

It wasn’t until the mid 1800s when Christmas was recreated as a family-centered holiday of warmth and peace, a facelift credited in part to the works of two writers, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Although the “reason for the season” (as the catchy saying goes) has not changed, the celebration itself is completely unrecognizable from its origin.

This stark contrast is by no means unusual to holidays or even to us as individuals. Even as human beings, we go through changes during our lives that can leave us unrecognizable to those who may have known us long ago. We change in physical appearance and also in our behavior and temperament.

This week we read parshat Vayechi, the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis.  The text begins with Jacob’s request that he not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours.  This text ends with Joseph making a similar request that he be buried back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.  What is notable about this culmination of several narratives is how Jacob and Joseph have changed over time and how they have remained the same.  Chapter 48, verse 8 finds us with Jacob giving a final blessing to Joseph’s sons.  He asks the same question his father asked of him when he came for a blessing: “Who are these?”

In this déjà vu moment of uncertainty, Ephraim and Menashe are unrecognizable to their grandfather. Perhaps this is because Jacob’s vision, like Isaac’s, had begun to fail, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake his father made. Or perhaps he failed to recognize Ephraim and Menashe because they had been born and raised in Egypt and thus had become indistinguishable from Egyptian youth. In either case, the boys appeared to have changed, and this was unnerving to their grandfather.  

The boys respond with the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel,” which of course has a double meaning since they are speaking to Jacob, Israel. This is their own way of saying that even though they may look like Egyptians, they affirm the same God as their father and grandfather.  What was inside them remained the same even if they looked physically different.

Some life changes leave us looking different, but staying ourselves on the inside. Other changes rock us so hard that we are never the same. In the case of Christmas, it might be a little of both. The celebration might be vastly different from its beginnings, but like we hear from Ephraim and Menashe, it’s up to those who celebrate to call out and remind those whose vision isn’t what it used to be that there’s a purpose bigger than any of us. It’s just not always easy to recognize.

Uniquely You – Parshat Vayechi 5775

baby-name-blessingAs a parent, I found choosing a name for our sweet baby to be overwhelming.  We knew we wanted to name her after my father with an “s” name and after Duncan’s grandmother, with an “a” name.  We knew we wanted a name that was filled with meaning.  But then came the question: “What if the name we give her is not reflective of who she is?”  We named her Shiri (“my song”), but what if she has no interest in singing later in life?  We explained at her naming that we also blessed her with the characteristics of those she’s named for so we could expect her to grow up to be like them, but time will tell how well her name expresses who she becomes.

As we know throughout the first book of the Torah, names play an important role in telling us the stories of our forefathers.  We start with Abraham and Sarah, who go through name changes that describe the great nation they will help build.  Isaac receives his name because of the laughter his parents shared at the amazement of his conception.  Jacob gets his first name from holding his brother’s heel at birth and receives a second name after an encounter with God.  These names teach us about the people who carry them as much as they identify who they are in a crowd.

This week parshat Vayechi, the final section of text in sefer Bereshit (Genesis), tells of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph and their final moments with family members.  In the final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children.  He promises to tell them what will happen to them in the future, but instead he shares with each child their special gifts and character.

When the children were given their names earlier in the narrative, their names represented how they came into the world and who their parents hoped they would be.  In the end, we learn that parents don’t really have prophecy into who their children will be.  As these children grew, their father recognized that they might represent the characteristics entailed by their birth name, but they also have other blessings to share with the world.

As parents, this parshah reminds us that it is our responsibility to recognize these changes and growth in our children too.  We can name them in honor of loved ones and pray that they carry those character traits with them, but we should also recognize the beautiful, funny, creative individuals our children grow into as they experience our world.  Their individuality is the greatest blessing we can give them.

The Ultimate Mitzvah – Parshat Vayechi 5774

“Could you do me a favor?”  They are probably some of the most dreaded words in the English language.  It only takes the first few syllables before you begin coming up with a list of excuses to get out of the task.  On the flip side, the asker also has something at stake.  Besides the guilt of imposing on a friend’s busy schedule, there’s the realization that at some point you might ask them the same question and they’ll be indebted to you to say yes.  A helping hand can mean the world, but it places a burden on both parties.

The Torah is filled with favors – people helping each other out to get something accomplished.  Think about Abraham buying land for burial or asking Sarai to pretend to be his sister; these are favors that help solve problems for Abraham and Sarah. Joseph interpreting a dream for Pharaoh began as a favor and led to hisgreatness and promotion.

Our parshah this week, parshat Vayechi, the last in the first book of the Torah, Bereshit, teaches us about the ultimate favor asked.  The parshah is centered around the death of Jacob, the blessings he gives to his grandchildren, and the mourning that the brothers do for their father.  It then takes a turn and focuses on Joseph mending the final pieces of his relationship with his brothers.  But the central focus of our text is thedeath of Jacob, the death of Joseph, and what each one asks of his loved ones before he dies.  In chapter 47, verse 29,it says: “And when the time approached for Israel (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt.’”   At the end of the parshah, Joseph makes a similar request to his brothers.

When Jacob makes this request, he uses the words Chesed v’emet, which I have translated above to mean steadfast loyalty, but they also mean in their most literal sense “true kindness.”  Jacob and Joseph both ask a favor at the endof their lives.  Of course this is adifferent kind of favor.  It isn’t picking up the kids at school or covering a class.  This favor is one that they have no intention of ever paying back to those who perform it for them.  A mitzvah of true kindness is one that has no reciprocal favor anticipated.  This text asserts that one of the only mitzvot that can be defined this way is caring for the dead.  In this case, those who uphold Jacob’s and Joseph’s request understand that there is no tangible reward for this favor.

But the parshah also reminds us that perhaps we shouldn’t wait until our loved ones are gone to fulfill this level of mitzvah, to do something without the expectation of reward or reciprocity.  The name of our parshah, Vayechi, means “and he lived.” Favors can be good, but often come with the expectation of a return.  This Shabbat imagine what it would be like to live in a world where each action was done for its own purpose, not because of what you receive in return, and then challenge yourself to act with chesed v’emet, ultimate kindness.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast – Parshat Vayechi 5772

As the secular New Year has come and gone, I find myself in shock.  2011 just flew by.  While I accomplished many of my goals, I’m still left to wonder where the time went.  In an instant a year can pass us by.  I hear parents say all the time, “I blinked and my child grew up.”  As we bring ourBar and Bat Mitzvah students to the ECC to celebrate, the teachers have a hard time believing that eleven or twelve years have passed from when these young adults were preschoolers themselves.  We often wonder, where did the time go?
I’ve always been curious about this phenomenon of time flying by.  I know there are 24 hours in a day, and that the year has 365 or 366 days in it, but why does the time seem to move more quickly at certain points?  Is there any truth to the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun”?  A recent study shared on NPR addressed why time seems to go slower in your younger years and speed up and fly by when you’re older.  The researcher, Neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine, says that when we are younger, every experience is new, from daily activities to new information at school.  We have brand new sensations and feelings and because of this our neurons are firing faster, more information is being taken in and stored, and therefore it feels like it takes longer.  That’s why by noon the kids in the ECC are exhausted from all of the learning and growing and they need a nap.  The study goes on to explain that when we’re older, our daily life is more routine, we have habits, and we’re not learning as much on a a daily basis.  Because of this, our brains don’t have to work so hard and time feels like it flies by. But time actually speeding up is, of course, an illusion.
This led me to our parshah this week, parshat Vayechi.  The word vayechi means “and he lived,” and the “he” is Jacob.  Just as the text that recounts the death of Sarah has more to say about how she lived, this section of text where Jacob dies focuses on Jacob’s life.  What counts is not how Jacob died, but how he lived his life.  Jacob is a patriarch with tremendous ups and downs.  His life begins with favoritism, his parents each choosing a favorite child.  He runs away from his furious brother, and then works seven years to marry one wife only to be tricked into marrying her sister.  Then he marries the woman he loves, but she can’t have kids.  Then, his sons take away his favorite son.  Inparshat Vayeshev, when Jacob hears about his son Joseph’s “death,” Jacob has a choice, he can sit, as the parshah implies, or he can stand.  Jacob chooses to sit; the text teaches “ki Ered”: I will go down.  Jacob stops living, he is grieving, and in this grief he has stopped living a life that leads to new experiences, so time flies by.
Jacob lived an incredible life, and the question for us is what does it mean to live?  According to the time study, living life to the fullest is about slowing down time.  When we really live, it’s by trying something new.  We make a change in our lives, big or small.  Jacob saw plenty of changes. 
The great 20th century Torah commentator Jon Bon Jovi sang “It’s my life, it’s now or never, I ain’t gonna live forever, I just gotta live while I’m alive,” urging each of us to live now, live today.  Time might fly by, but only because we’ve settled into a routine.  We have to ask ourselves if that is really living.  We have a choice: we can be described as vayechi, and he lived, or as va’yeshev, and he sat.  This year, try something new.  Slow down time with the choice to experience a new world, to get up, to live.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: in this week’s parshah, Jacob dies after blessing each of his sons and grandsons.  To this day we still use this concept of blessing each Friday night as we bless one another at the Shabbat table.  We ask that God help us to grow as caring, kind, loving and just people.  As Jacob dies, the text teaches us that this too is a blessing.  Our lives are blessings to those around us, we must use our actions, memories and deeds to lift up our community. 
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  Chapter 47 verse 29 features Jacob asking Joseph to pledge in “steadfast loyalty,” Chesed Shel Emet to take his body with them when the Israelites leave Egypt.  The phrase chesed shel emet has come to mean “true kindness” a good deed for which no reciprocal favor can be anticipated.  Discuss as a family: When’s the last time you did something with no expectation of reciprocation?  Why is it important to have act without expecting anything in return?