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What Matters Most – Vayhi 5781

In the flurry of year-end stories (that is, the secular year; our year of 5781 began back in Tishrei, in the fall), a whimsical bit of news floated out of my radio a few days ago, about a curious clock tower in Scotland. The clock in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, which looms over the Waverley train station, traditionally runs three minutes fast, in an apparent effort to help people get to their trains on time. But every year, on December 31st, they set the clock back three minutes so that it will chime midnight at the appropriate time, and then set it forward again three minutes. 

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

This year, the management decided not to set the clock back, so that it would chime three minutes early, thus making 2020 apparently three minutes shorter than a usual year. And, as we all know, the past year was hardly “usual.”

As silly as this story is, I must say that there is something heartening about it. It speaks about the optimism we have for the future. Three fewer minutes of 2020, three extra minutes appended to 2021. (Of course, for 5781, it’s a wash.) 

But given how precious our time is, how valuable the holy potential of every moment, those three minutes remind us, in some sense, to keep our wits about us as we remember what matters most: life.

Over my “stay-cation” during the last two weeks, I was able to tune into another Conservative synagogue’s streamed Shabbat services. I tried for a second one, but although I set up Zoom before Shabbat, somehow I got booted off after Kabbalat Shabbat, and so was not able to see Shabbat morning – perhaps you have experienced this yourself. (The Conservative movement’s teshuvah / rabbinic guidance on the use of online services during the pandemic actually mandates that one set up the computer before Shabbat and minimize touching it during Shabbat or Yom Tov, but of course that brings with it the inevitable technological pitfalls.)

But the services that I did see, from one of the largest Conservative synagogues in America, was a highly-polished production, with musicians and a choir and multiple camera shots and a director and technical staff and two rabbis and a cantor and a handful of pre-arranged visitors participating from home and the whole nine cubits. The number of households streaming peaked out at over 1,100.

My reaction to such a production was not necessarily to daven, but to sit back in awe of the level of logistical sophistication, and, of course, money, required to make that happen. And of course I could not help but to compare it to our own online services, which, by comparison, are still in the electronic Bronze Age.

But I must say that I’m happy with what we are doing, even though it’s not perfect, or even close to approximating what a synagogue service should feel like. And, by the way, the vast majority of respondents to our High Holiday survey also indicated that they were pleased with those services. Of course, I know that everybody right now is giving kaf zekhut, that is, tipping the scales in our favor given the circumstances (see Pirqei Avot 1:6). 

We all know that this is an insufficient substitute for actual synagogue services, and we all look forward to the time (bimherah beyameinu / speedily in our days) we will be able to gather again for tefillah / prayer, for kiddush, for schmoozing, for JJEP and meetings and social gatherings and Hod veHadar and learning together and yes, even shiv’ah and for all the communal things that we do.

But right now, we are all in exile. (Ironic, considering that most of us are spending a lot more time at home…)

The widely-anticipated post-holiday virus surge is about to take off; the vaccine distribution is plodding along, although I am very pleased to see that many of our members who work in the medical field have already received it, and there is light at the end of what looks like a very long tunnel. But we are not there yet, even though we can see the Promised Land from the depths of Egypt: Min hametzar qarati Yah; from the narrow place we continue to call out to God (Psalm 118:1).

Parashat Vayhi reminds us that Ya’aqov / Jacob ends his life in exile! So too Yosef. But they both live, and that is what matters most. The parashah opens with:

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה

Vayhi Ya’aqov be-eretz mitzrayim sheva esreh shanah

Ya’aqov lived in Egypt for 17 years.

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived. The text does not say, Ya’aqov suffered, or Ya’aqov was miserable and depressed because he was in exile. It just says, he lived. OK, so perhaps he was grateful to be alive, having escaped the famine in Israel and having been ultimately rescued by his estranged son Yosef, whom he thought had been killed by a wild beast years before. Maybe he was not miserable and depressed because he was surrounded by his large and prolific family, and they lived freely and happily with the blessing of the good Pharaoh.

We do not know. But embedded in that word, vayhi, packed into a common grammatical form, is a suggestion of both past and future. Known to grammarians as the “vav consecutive,” it is a phenomenon of Biblical Hebrew that in many circumstances, the letter vav in front of a verb reverses the mood: perfect becomes imperfect; imperfect (as we have here) becomes perfect. 

(It is not entirely accurate to say that this is a question of past vs. future. While Biblical Hebrew does have past, present and future contexts, the verbs do not really have “tense” the way that Modern Hebrew does. But that’s a grammar lesson for another day.)

Vayhi Ya’aqov. Ya’aqov lived: The vav consecutive turns the imperfect, what has not yet been completed, into the perfect, what is complete. The imperfect form without the vav consecutive, yehi, should be literally understood as “he has not completed living.” With the vav in front of it, it reads, vayhi: he completed living. He lived. 

And yet, the incomplete is incorporated into the complete. He lived, and he will yet live. Embedded in the past is the future. A contradiction, perhaps.

Ya’aqov must have known that his future was found in his past. He was, after all, renamed Yisrael, the name later applied to the land promised to him and his parents and grandparents. He must have understood that, although he lived the end of his life and died in exile, that his children and grandchildren would return. He lived, and yet he will live.

And so too the contradiction in our current moment: Vaccines are being administered, and yet the virus is spiking. The end of the worldwide pandemic is near, but we must continue wearing masks and social distancing and refraining from gathering. Normal living is on the horizon, but the current anxiety is not yet abated.

We have lived, and we will live. And we will do the best we can under these circumstances. We will judge 2020 – ourselves, our friends and family, our institutions – with kaf zekhut, the benefit of the doubt. We will mourn those whom we have lost, and who we will lose, and those of us who are still safe and healthy will be grateful for our lives.

Exile will come to an end. We will come forth from Egypt. And we will continue to sanctify every moment, every three-minute increment of holiness. 

I am not one for secular New Years’ resolutions. We made our resolutions back at the beginning of Tishrei, the resolution to recommit to our tradition, to improve ourselves, our behavior, our relationships and our world through the framework of halakhah, the spiritual fulfillment of Torah. One of the names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance, because those are days on which we remember that the framework of Torah is our Etz Hayyim, the Tree that brings us life.

But if I were, I would resolve right now to keep living: to remember family and friends and to be in touch with them, to tell them how much you love and appreciate them. To savor every minute as best we can. To not succumb to the feelings of hopelessness or anxiety that many of us surely feel. To look to the future, even as we grieve for what, and who, we have lost. Here is an action item: make it a point to reach out to a distant friend every day. We are all in this together, and everybody is grateful for the call.

That is, perhaps what distinguishes our tradition from those cultures that celebrate the secular new year. A new year is not merely an excuse to party with abandon; it is an opportunity to look back and forward, to acknowledge and be grateful that we are still here, to remember that our history has its high and low points, and that the coming year will surely include both.

We the Jews have survived far greater challenges than this; we have been through exile and dispersion, persecution and genocide. We can surely manage a few more months of wearing masks and staying away from each other. And the way that we have always done that is to remember what matters most: life.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 1/2/2021.)