Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Every Day's A Victory!

Sometimes context contains a message as important as content. Such is the case with the opening of the parsha this week of Vayechi. The Sages noted that this portion, unlike all the others in the Torah, opens without a spatial gap of significance from the close of last week's reading of Vayigash. Typically a gap of at least 9 letters will be found in the Torah where a new section commences. They ask " why is the beginning of the reading closed?" They answer "It is to teach us that with the passing of Yaakov the eyes and hearts of the Israelites closed from the servitude that began then".

The answer begs a question of its own. The answer implies that the oppression in Egypt began immediately with the death of Yaakov. We know however in accord with other sources that until all the brothers of Yosef died the Israelites were not oppressed. Only after the death of that whole generation did the Pharaoh initiate the measures of servitude and persecution. How do we reconcile the apparent contradiction.

One way to resolve the inconsistency is to reinterpret the medrash with which we began. When the sages said that "the eyes and hearts of the Israelites closed from the servitude...."They did not mean that the servitude caused their eyes and hearts to close. Rather the "from" used here means they could not see the servitude that was already in motion, though not yet actualized. Yaakov's death caused them to be blinded to the reality of the shifting attitudes of their hosts in Egypt. After Yaakov's passing they became unable to see the impending disaster, something that was open to them to recognize as long as he was alive.

Have you ever wondered, how is it that the Jews of Germany remained blind to the rise of Nazism and stayed put in the face of years of pogrom and prejudice leading up to the full scale murder of the Jews. They all had opportunity to leave prior to 1939 and much reason to flee. The laws against the Jews were promulgated over years and with increasing severity. Yet they denied the obvious and many, indeed most, refused to emigrate.

The answer is that we are all blind to that which we believe is more than we can endure. We have, built into our psyche, filters that hide from us the unbearable. The child who is molested will often have no memory of the experience. The parent who is invested in an agenda for his/her child will often deny the child's reality, refuse to see the child's limitations when it conflicts with that parent's expectations. People who are living an unhealthy lifestyle will often be blinded to the obvious consequences of their behaviors when acknowledging them will mean the need for a change they feel they cannot bear.

In all the above cases the failure to see is not a conscious decision. The person is not deciding to ignore what s/he does not want to see. No, s/he really does not see what to another is obvious.
S/he is protected by an unconscious desire to avoid facing that which s/he feels would be too hard to deal with .

The Jews of Germany really did not see what to anyone else would be a glaring truth. Their perceived need to retain their way of life, home and culture put filters on their perception.
Neither did the Israelites in Egypt recognize that the tides were shifting against them. Long before the oppression began in earnest the signs were there and compelling. Yet with the death of Yaakov they had not the eyes to see. It was simply more than they felt they could tolerate.

So you ask, what did the passing of Yaakov have to do with their eyes and hearts being "closed".
If it was too painful to accept that the people of Egypt were turning on them, so much so that they couldn't take it in, how would Yaakov have helped? How would he make it tolerable

I once asked my father, when he was in his mid-eighties and not long before he died where he saw himself in the trajectory of his life. I asked him "Dad, on a continuum, if we drew a line from the beginning of your life to its end, where are you now?" He said in all earnestness, "a little past the middle". My father struggled with many things in his life. He has a son mentally ill . He had business reversals. He had lingering health problems that caused him much discomfort and for many years. With all he endured when you asked him how he was he would answer "every day's a victory!".

My father was not pollyannish. He did not say "every day is a holiday". He knew life was full of pain. Yet he found the way to embrace his suffering rather than flee it. Indeed for him every day was a victory, his victory over the bruises and wounds that threatened to overwhelm him.
Not surprisingly he, as a 14 year old boy left Germany with his parents and siblings. He learned from his father that it was okay to see, even if that which he sees will mean having to uproot and start over. Through the courage of my father, I am blessed with eyes to see. He taught me, through a living example, that no matter what life may bring I need not be afraid to see. He showed me that in all circumstances we are larger than that which threatens to overwhelm us.
I need not be afraid to see. On the contrary, only in seeing is there the possibility of transcendence.

No one in our tradition had a harder life than Yaakov. His losses, his tragedies, the disappointments of his life are compelling. Pursued by Esav, cheated by Lavan, the tragic death of Rachel, the duplicity of his sons in the sale of Yosef, whom he grieves for 22 years, Yaakov's life is an endless litany of suffering. And yet it is precisely Yaakov and the courage he exemplified in the face of his suffering that allowed the Israelites to see even those things that seemed unbearable. They thought, "If' our father Yaakov could contain and do battle with his demons so can we." Only with Yaakov's passing and the loss of this exemplar of victory in the face of suffering did the Israelites become blind, their eyes and hearts unable to take in what they thought to be too difficult. Without Yaakov, without the parent showing the way, the people of Israel became lost to the reality before them. Naively, like their decendents in later generations, they denied the tide of horror and clung to false and dangerous hopes of prosperity in a social setting where they were hated.

What's the message in all this for us? For me the answer is clear. We are the parents of the generations that follow us. All that our children know about facing adversity they learn from us.
It is vital that we not hide our struggles from our children and grandchildren lest they learn from that that our burdens can defeat us and need to be minimized to be endured. When we tell the generations that follow us the fullness of our story, with its suffering, we empower them to believe that they too can cope with whatever comes their way and that they need not wear blinders as they go through life in order to persevere.

We need to show our children as much as tell them that yes, we have our woundedness and yes, even our defeats but we prevail for indeed every day with G-d's help is a victory!

Shabbat Shalom

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