Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, January 2, 2024

CORE IDENTITY (part two)

The actor Martin Landau portraying the older Jacob, in the movie Joseph (1995)
Saved from images.cinefacts.de


            Last week, we began exploring the question of what determines our personal identity and how, as Jews, we experience that universal dynamic in our own particular way.
            Now, we will look at a Bible passage that contains the seeds of this multi-dimensionality of our identity. The Bible tells us the stories of our ancestors—spiritual and biological—not as “just so stories” but because they are signposts for our own journeys through life.
            In the annual rereading of the Bible that is part of worldwide Jewish practice, we have just finished reading the saga of Jacob and his sons. In terms of the big picture, that part of the story is significant because it explains the “descent” to Egypt from the heights of living in the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan. For the Bible, leaving Israel is always problematic, even when it is justified by circumstance. It is also a “going down”. When Abram went to Egypt (Gen. 12), his wife Sarai was seized, consigned to the Pharaoh’s harem, and only saved from rape by divine intervention. Likewise, when Isaac went only as far as Gaza, he had reason to fear for his safety on account of the locals lusting after his wife, Rebecca (Gen. 26). When Jacob fled the wrath of his brother Esau and went to Aram (Syria), he ended up in the clutches of the suave but manipulative Laban, who tricked him into marrying the sister he had not wanted to marry and who enslaved him for twenty years (Gen. 29-31).
            In the past week’s portion of the story, Jacob has learned that his beloved son Joseph, long feared dead, is in fact alive and functioning as a high official in Egypt.  With the Pharaoh’s blessing, Joseph has sent for his father. To apply Hamlet’s famous phrase, (Act III, Scene 1) the reunion would indeed be “a consummation devoutly to be wished.”   But this is not the set-up for a conventional happy ending: Even the news that Joseph is alive does not suffice to end Jacob’s depression. He is past the point of being able to rebound from the bitter, black darkness that has crippled him for over a decade.
The Bible’s narrative art is minimalist.  It tells us only a fraction of what we might wish to know.  Since the biblical authors are parsimonious in sharing details, every bit of information in a Bible story is therefore all the more important.  Listening to the speeches of Jacob since the disappearance of Joseph, we have to be struck by how present death is in his thinking. Virtually every line of his speech remembered by the biblical storytellers makes mention of his anticipation of dying:  
            When his sons and daughters tried to console him over the death of Joseph, he refused to be comforted, and said, “I will go down to my son in Sheol mourning” (Gen. 37:35)—Sheol being the poetic biblical way of describing the grave. When father Jacob heard that the Egyptian vizier was demanding to see Benjamin, Jacob again spoke of death: “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone remains, and should harm befall him on the way you are going, you would bring down my gray head in sorrow to Sheol.” (Gen. 42:38) In his bitterness he virtually disowns his children by Leah and the two concubines, referring to Benjamin as his sole surviving son. And again, his speech is dominated by his presentiment of death. Now, hearing that Joseph is alive does not stop him from remaining fixated upon his impending death. In characteristically fatalistic terms, Jacob expressed his approval by again referring to his demise: “Let me go see him before I die” (Genesis 45:28).
            To anticipate the continuation of the story: nor does the reunion itself change Jacob’s negative evaluation of his life. In his audience with the Pharaoh, he says of himself, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained the days of the years of my fathers in their days of sojourning.” (Gen. 47:9) According to the next chapter of the Bible story, Jacob was to live an additional 17 years, but already he spoke as if his life was ending. Moreover, despite the many successes Jacob had accomplished, often against adversity and adversaries—he was, after all, the “God-wrestler” who merited that rare blessing, a divine change of name—Jacob’s self-evaluation is bitter and negative.
            All of this should be kept in mind as we look at one crucial episode in the story. When Jacob was en route from his home in Canaan to Egypt and had gone as far as Beersheba, where he offered sacrifices to the “God of his father, Isaac” (who was connected with the worship of the God of Israel in that locale), God spoke to Jacob through a night-vision.  We will look closely at these few verses:
            God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied.  “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.  I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” (Gen. 46:2-4)
            These few verses deserve a close reading—but in the compass of this message, I will stress only two points, one at the beginning and one at the end of the passage: Let us notice that the name of the patriarch changes between the frame of the story and its body. The narrator refers to the patriarch as “Israel” but within the vision, God calls him as “Jacob! Jacob!”—and the patriarch responds to that name.
            I would like us to understand this in psychological terms.  In this vision—or dream, if you will—the patriarch is experiencing an extraordinary communication. For Jacob/Israel, the night vision or dream was the characteristic way of his receiving messages from the realm of the Divine.  Perhaps not many of us are familiar with this text, but many more will remember the dream of Jacob’s ladder, angels ascending and descending it, and God at the top, speaking words of reassurance to Jacob. This dream serves as a bookend to that one, a parallel message of divine reassurance at another inflection point in the patriarch’s life, his next descent from the Holy Land.
            That thought yields one part of the harvest of meaning from the choice of name in the dream-vision.  God addressed the patriarch as Jacob, remaining within the parameters of such communication as established by Jacob’s mind.  
            But there is another insight to be harvested, as well.  Jacob did have a name change, and that change was supposed to be for the better.  Why would God address the patriarch as Jacob, employing the superseded name? Or perhaps we ought to recast the question, since we are approaching this story psychologically: Why would Israel experience a divine encounter with God addressing him by his former name?
            I believe that here, too, we see the wisdom of the poetic dictum that “the child is the father of the man.” In a moment of great stress, Jacob experienced God as he knew God when he was a young man, growing up in the tents of Isaac and Rebecca. Note that immediately before narrating the dream, the Bible made mention of Isaac: Jacob offered sacrifice “to the God of his father Isaac.” We, the listeners/ readers, know that this God is also the God of Abraham, but here, the emphasis is on Jacob’s own father, Isaac.  I believe that this little detail is meant to orient us to thinking of Jacob’s state of mind as being focused on his own youth.
            And I think there is a third lesson to be gleaned from the Israel/ Jacob switch in the biblical verse. Jacob was a flawed character. His trickster nature went up to the line and, when he took advantage of Isaac’s blindness to steal the blessing intended for his brother Esau, Jacob’s trickiness went beyond the line.  He certainly suffered plenty for that misstep. The name “Israel” was supposed to be a confirmation that he was no longer that man.
            And yet…. At this moment, Jacob/Israel hears the voice of God calling him by the name “Jacob.” I believe that the patriarch knew that he was destined to have to undertake a life-long effort to be worthy of the name “Israel”—the blessing was not a one-and-done gift, but rather, an indication of what Jacob/Israel  should continue to strive for. Until the very end, he is now Israel, now Jacob. In his closing blessing to his children (Gen. 49), the Bible refers to them as “the tribes of Israel” but then backtracks: “Jacob finished charging his sons, and gathered his feet up into the bed, and he breathed his last, and was gathered to his kinfolk” (Gen. 49:33).
            In the context of that unending alteration, the choice of name in the dream tells us that Jacob/ Israel knew, at a deep level, that in the eyes of God, he would always be a work in progress… And is that not true of each of us?
            Turning to the end of the passage: What is the substance of God’s reassurance? God promises that Joseph will be present at Jacob/ Israel’s death; that Joseph will be the one to perform the intimate act of closing his dead father’s eyes. How is this consolation? At an obvious level, it reassures Jacob/Israel that he will never be parted from Joseph again. But I think there is another note in this resonating chord:  God is aware of Jacob/Israel’s constant thinking about death…. And God uses that as a vehicle for consolation.  God reaches into the patriarch’s mind, accepts him in the depressed state that he is in, and finds a way to console him in that place. To a man focused on his upcoming death, the statement that he will die attended by his beloved son is a meaningful message of healing. 
            Thinking about this, I realize that many of us do our loved ones and friends no favor when we give them unhelpful advice such as “just snap out of it!” or “look at the bright side!”—if they were able to do that, they would have done so already.
            The meaning of this passage extends beyond the psychological and makes a deep claim about the meaning of Jewish existence:
            God accepts Jacob/Israel and from that place, God helps him take the step that needs to be taken, consenting to move the family to Egypt. It is a lowering. It has a cost.  The cost will be terrible in the generations to come, when a new king will arise, a new dynasty—the 19th dynasty—that will enslave the Hebrews.  But Jacob/Israel’s journey is necessary.  If there had been no descent, there would have been no later ascent, an ascent not of a family, but of a nation; and not just any nation, but a nation whose historical experience prepared it to be God’s covenanted partner. If the people Israel had not known slavery, they would not have been able to signify God’s voice at Sinai, proclaiming a radical message of the equality of all humans before God.  No other religion at that time dared to claim that. In Babylon, the God Shamash was worshiped as the giver of law. The famous law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi is all about social status. The higher the status, the more favorable the treatment under the law…. And that was supposed to be the will of the gods.  The Bible’s core message is that the One God does not accept such inequities.  One God, one human family, one equal status of all the family members before God.
            Jacob/Israel needed to descend to Egypt so that the Jewish national journey could commence. May we be worthy descendants of Jacob/ Israel, and may we continue that journey in good faith! Amen.