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Look Beneath Surface for True Meaning
VAYECHI Genesis 47:28-50:26
Jacob dies in these final chapters of the first book of the Torah. Thus, Bereshit - the book of Genesis - begins with creation and ends with a death.
In response to the Torah's description of Jacob's dying and what was done for him afterward, the Talmud quotes Rabbi Yochanan as asserting: "Our father Jacob is not dead." Rabbi Nachman countered: "Was it for nothing that Jacob was mourned and prepared for eternal rest?"
Rabbi Yochanan replied: "As Jacob's children are alive, so, too, is Jacob alive."
We can, indeed, understand "children" literally, but we can also think of them as our actions in this world, that which comes from us.
Death is not a complete loss, as long as new life is born from what we do while we're alive. This Shabbat, the Torah portion - Vayechi - coincides with the weekend during which we reaffirm our commitment to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and to what was born out of his life.
We began reading Bereshit back in October, with the seven days of creation. This Shabbat, we finish with the death of Jacob, who was mourned (according to Midrash Lekach Tov) for seven days after his burial.
The use of the same number for the period of mourning and of creation points to a truth: After significant loss in our life, we do, in fact, live in a new world, a changed reality.
The sons of Jacob fear that Joseph will now feel free to take vengeance on them for the evil they did to him so long ago, when they first planned on killing him but then wound up "only" selling him into slavery.
So the brothers tell a lie.
They tell Joseph that their father Jacob had left a message for him, telling Joseph that he should forgive his brothers.
Joseph knows they're making this message up, but he also sees through the surface of their words and examines deeply the source of the lie - that his very own brothers are terrified that Joseph will take revenge upon them.
Consider Joseph's words: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good."
How different would our lives be if we could apply these words to our daily interactions with other people? When a passing driver cuts us off in traffic, when a family member or friend says something cruel, when a coworker treats us less than well - in that moment, they intend us harm.
And so often, when people do mean us harm, our reaction is to respond in kind.
Spark of Divinity
But what if we could be inspired by Joseph's response? What if we could look past the surface of words and actions to the emotions, to the vulnerable soul, to the spark of divinity that lies beneath such things?
In the book of Bereshit, we have traveled through all the elements of a life, from beginning to end, from the seven days of Creation to the seven days following a death. Between the extremes have been much struggle, much pain, too much evil, and yet still, some goodness.
Just as Joseph looks back over his life and sees a pattern and a goodness that wasn't apparent in the moments themselves, so, too, should we continually look beneath the surface. Doing so doesn't mean that we'll stop identifying harm or evil in the world.
But it does mean that evil will have less power over our world - and us - and that we will be able to replace as much of it as possible with the goodness we bring to it.
We are all the children of Jacob, and we are all the children of the world that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped to create.
The question is: What will we do with this legacy?
Jeff Sultar is the senior rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia.