Saturday, January 3, 2015

Parsha Vayechi: The Patriarch Jacob, the Tenth of Tevet, and New Year's Resolutions

Normally, I write up a d'var Torah for a given week before Shabbat begins, but given the convoluted nature of this particular set of thoughts, I needed time to think this one through. For those of you who do not know, this past Thursday was the fast of the Tenth of Tevet. Amongst other things, this fast recalls Nebuchadnezzar's siege on Jerusalem (II Kings 25), which was the beginning of the end of the destruction of the First Temple. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), the reason for the destruction of the First Temple was murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. If we think about it for a moment, a society doesn't get depraved and sink to such lows overnight. Much like basically any other societal change, it happens gradually, and it's usually too late to do anything by the time the change is in full swing.

What we see in Parsha Vayechi (Genesis 47:29) is the patriarch Jacob being fully aware of that concept, particularly when he begs Joseph אל נא תקברני במצרים ("Don't bury me in Egypt"). Rashi points out via Midrash that Jacob was worried that the Egyptians would worship and deify Jacob. If we take this literally, as R. Chayim Angel illustrates, it's problematic because the Jewish people was so minute and non-influential that there was no way that the Egyptians were going to worship him. What Jacob was actually worried about was that his descendants would assimilate and worship him. Jacob was taking the Talmudic insight of "Who is wise? He who who sees the future outcome [i.e., foresight] (Tamid 32a)" very seriously here. Jacob did not want his descendants to forget their Jewish identities and what it meant to be Jewish. In this case, he felt that attachment to the land of Israel was essential for that. Not that I don't see the Zionist undertones in this Midrash, but I want to return back to the Tenth of Tevet for a moment. Wise people are able to foresee what's going to happen before it happens. When people become lax in their Jewish observance or identity, it's only a matter of time before Judaism and the Jewish people would fade into non-existence, or at least sink into the moral depravity we saw by the destruction of the First Temple.

In order to avoid making mistakes, we need to look both backwards in history and look forward. This motif is both apparent in the Tenth of Tevet and the idea behind New Year's resolutions for the secular New Year. If we are to learn from our past, we need to be able to take a hard look at previous mistakes that we have made. This is why Jews recite Selichot during the Tenth of Tevet: we need to be reminded that even our ancestors made mistakes. After all, we cannot move forward if we cannot find ways to avoid repeating mistakes. Conversely, if we only look backwards, we wallow in our past and don't make any progress. This is why Selichot are supposed to encourage us to look forward. It's the same thing when making New Year's resolutions. We need to find S.M.A.R.T. ways to improve upon ourselves if we ever want to make progress.

We need to have a certain mentality of going about progress because life can be downright arduous and bog us down. Jacob's life provides a good framework. Here was a man who tricked his brother, Esau, out of both his birthright and his father's blessing. He spent a sizable amount of his life running away not only from his brother, but from his past. He was even deceived by his father-in-law, Laban, with respects to his marriage to Rachel. He also had to deal with how his favoritism towards Joseph caused Joseph to be lost to him for many years. Jacob wrestled and struggled with life. It's why his namesake Israel (ישראל), literally meaning "one who struggles with G-d," is so relevant. It means that in spite of his struggles and travails, he stuck with his Judaism. Jacob's life shows one of the key ingredients not only to maintain a Jewish life, but also meaningful goal-setting in general. If you want to push through, you need the perseverance and tenacity that Jacob exhibited. Without these traits, people would give up all too easily on pursuing anything meaningful in life. So let's take a cue from Jacob: learn from your past, accept your present situation, and persevere like mad so we can all look forward to a better tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment