17 Tevet 5781

January 1, 2021

Happy New Year! This whole New Year thing, it really leaves me very confused and filled with mixed emotions. We become very reflective, as we look back and ask, “2020 – Did That Really Happen?!” Yet at the same time we also stop and look ahead, wondering what awaits us in 2021. We also try to make new resolutions, again for us as Jews, to improve ourselves for the New Year, but we do so knowing that we aren’t likely to keep them all… if indeed any. And for now, for this one day, we stop and reflect on the crossroads in our lives, but by tomorrow we’ll be back to business as usual, and we’ll start counting down the days till summer and then to next New Year’s Eve. At least we will count the days towards returning to something normal in our lives.

I look at all these conflicting feelings, and not surprisingly, I see them reflected in our Torah portion this week, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26). We now have come to the end of the 1st Book of the Torah, and we await the start of the next book in one week’s time. We conclude the story of Abraham’s family, and begin the story of the Israelite people. But the similarities between New Year’s and Vayechi don’t end there. Not only are we at a major milestone in the yearly Torah reading cycle, but we also see a lot of the same mixed emotions within the portion itself.

In our portion this week, we see Jacob lying on his death bed and instead of offering each of his children a blessing, he rebuked them for their misdeeds, and left them with a sense of bitterness and lasting grudges. Yet just a few chapters later, after Jacob’s death, the brothers come to Joseph with a message from their father beyond the grave: “Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly” (50:17). Another interesting moment is when the Torah tells us how impressive it is that Joseph survived to see children of the third generation of his son Ephraim, presumably his great-grandchildren. But in the very next verse, it says that on his deathbed he spoke to his brothers! So as awed as we’re supposed to be at Joseph’s old age, shouldn’t it be more amazing that his OLDER brothers are still alive?! Finally, we see that Joseph and his brothers go out of their way to bury Jacob back in Canaan in the ancestral plot. They take a big, long trip back to their homeland to bring Jacob’s body back to the Cave of Machpelah. Yet when Joseph dies, it only says that he asked to eventually be brought back to Canaan, when the Israelites one day return there. Why couldn’t they bring his bones up to Canaan like they did with Jacob? Why wait?? Perhaps Joseph wanted to stay with his people – BOTH the Israelites and the Egyptians – as long as they were in the land. Ultimately, he wanted to be with his ancestors, but while the Israelites continued to live in Egypt, he wanted to remain with them.

So we see that there are many pieces in our portion related to the reflections we go through at the end of our secular year: forgiveness, questions at the end of life, and maintaining connections to one’s people and ancestors. And the Torah portion leaves us much the same way the New Year does, with a lot of uncertainty and hope for the future, because the Torah portion ends on a positive note – with Joseph being buried and the Israelites at peace in Egypt – but also with a hint of foreshadowing for the future. We read that Joseph was buried in an Egyptian coffin, which might conjure up images of the oppression of the Israelites yet to come, and the coffin-like basket that the infant Moses is placed in as he floats down the Nile River. A positive ending, yet uncertainty ahead.

But, the point isn’t to leave you on a negative note. Along with insecurity in front of us come promise, expectation, adventure, and limitless potential. That is certainly how we approach our future, and how we view the joy of the New Year.

I pray that the year ahead brings us all safety, happiness, prosperity, and joy… and maybe even a little glimpse of a Divine Presence, offering us comfort and purpose for 2021. Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!