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Sober Assessments of Life as the Year Comes to a Close

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Many authors and philosophers across time have offered a version of “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” A partial list would include George Santayana[1]; Edmund Burke[2]; young adult author Sara Shepard[3]; and even Kurt Vonnegut[4], who said it in his backhand, cynical fashion: “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive.”

I believe that the original source is our own Israelite patriarch Jacob.

We find this thought in the Torah portion Vayechi, that closes the book of Genesis, as Jacob confers blessings upon his sons. Jacob can’t help but point out the flaws in his children’s characters and implies that they can set a better course for their descendants only when they recognize their faults and make changes in their lives. It is his last act before he dies.

The Torah narrative in the last two portions of Vayigash and Vayechi (which we read over the last two weeks) presents us with a number of resolutions of the issues surrounding Jacob’s family:

his children are now reunited;

their sibling animosities are on the way toward some kind of peaceful solution;

Jacob’s younger son Joseph has solidified his role as vizier of Egypt;

and Jacob’s family is well on their way toward becoming a comfortable, prosperous even, minority amid the teeming masses of the Egyptian populace.

Such a conclusion could itself have been the dream fulfillment of any immigrant family in their new homes. Jacob undoubtedly was a proud patriarch seeing his children and descendants grow in size and influence.

Why, then, is Jacob so sad? Let me tell you what I mean.

* * * *

In the parashah of Vayigash, Joseph brings his father Jacob to an audience with the Pharaoh, certainly a moment of special honor. Yet when the supreme ruler of Egypt asks Jacob his age, Jacob turns negative. He is not offended by the question, but what comes out of his mouth indicates curmudgeonly sorrow.

“Well, if you must know,” says Jacob, “I am 130 years old, but my life has been miserable and of little significance. I have attained nothing like my fathers before me.” The Pharaoh likely didn’t like having a naysayer in the court, so he accepts a perfunctory blessing from Jacob, then moves on to other court business, never to see the Israelite patriarch again.

Jacob’s response to the Pharaoh represents, perhaps, the bluntest of post-mortems that we might imagine. And Jacob is also cynical in Vayechi, the next week’s portion, where he offers to his sons his deathbed blessings, compounding his negative feelings about his own life, with his candid appraisal of his children’s achievements.

Jacob says to Reuben, ‘O my first born, you made me feel strong and vigorous. I had such hopes for you. But you slept with my wife’s concubine while I was away—you thought I’d never find out—and so you will amount to nothing.’[5]

Then Jacob turns to Shimon and Levi, and berates them for their massacre of the people of Sh’chem after the rape of their sister Dinah. ‘Taking justice into your own hands is not the way of the world. I don’t even want to know you.’

Jacob’s blessings to the other sons are not so negative, but he does not mince words: he identifies their character flaws in the hope of staving off further questionable behavior. Based on their demonstrated bad behavior, he implies that past is prologue, and that his sons are doomed to repeat the past mistakes unless they straighten out their crooked lives.

* * * *

Hearing Jacob’s cynical expressions in these two Torah portions might encourage us to wonder about the legacy that we will leave behind when we depart this world. In the moments of clarity before we die, will we offer a negative assessment like Jacob, that our lives ‘have been miserable and of little consequence’, and that we ‘have attained nothing like our ancestors before us’; or will we find reason to say, ‘it was a good run all-in-all, and – all things considered – we are satisfied.’

As the calendar year of 2018 concludes, our thoughts might turn to this question. Indeed, every day—with every word we utter and every action that we perform—we should bear in mind not only the immediate consequences but also the possible long-term ramifications of our words and deeds.

What, indeed, will be the examples that we set for others? What will be the legacy that we leave behind?

* * * *

I am reading, perhaps for the second time, Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Originally published in 1962, it is a brilliant mixture of horror and science fiction in a classic battle of Good vs Evil, and it has recently been republished with notes and essays by contemporary sci-fi and horror authors. I would like to share with you a small segment of his book, because it presents us with a suggestion of how one contemplates the legacy to be passed down to future descendants.

A father and son, engrossed in solving their immediate problem, engage in this brief exchange trying to understand how we should evaluate our lives.

In the book, Will, the twelve-year-old protagonist, asks:

“Dad…are you a good person?”

“To you and your mother, yes, I try. But no man’s a hero to himself. I've lived with me a lifetime. I know everything worth knowing about myself…and adding it all up, yes, I'm all right.”

“Then dad”, asked Will, “why aren't you happy?”

And here is the father’s sagacious answer:

“Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he's covering up. He's had his fun, and he's guilty. And men do love sin, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit our appetites. Hear a man too loudly praising others and look to wonder if he didn't just get up from the sty.

“On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that's your good man with a capital ‘G.’ For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two. I've known a few. You work twice as hard to be a farmer as to be his hog. I suppose it's thinking about trying to be good makes the crack run up the wall one night. A man with high standards, too, the least hair falls on him sometimes wilts his spine. He can't let himself alone, won't lift himself off the hook if he falls just a breath from grace.”[6]

In the past year, have we been good people? Have we worked hard at it? Have we been mindful of the ways we have affected other people?

Have we always chosen the right word for the right occasion, or have we let our emotions rule our tongues? Have we exhibited too much braggadocio; have our demeanors been humble and unassuming; or have we found a healthy compromise between the two, in a place where we have, like Rabbi Salanter of our Mussar tradition, asked for ‘no more than our space, and no less than our place’?

We know that the legacy we ultimately leave behind in the world does not necessarily consist of possessions or wealth, but rather in the way we approach the world and its complex set of personalities and situations, and in the way we treat other people. Rabbi Salanter commends to us an unpretentious and self-effacing life. But he reminds us, too, that we also have a place which belongs to us and of which no one should deprive us. Finding a life which leads to both, or a balance of the two, should be our goal. We must live with mindfulness and sensitivity, so that we don’t take up more room on the planet than we’re due, but that we also don’t lose our individual human dignity.

Returning to our pair of Torah portions that conclude the book of Genesis, we observe the way in which Jacob establishes his legacy: He offers it in the blessings he gives to others. In this way, he teaches us something about what we need to possess, and what we can give away.

In the Torah, Jacob has become ill; he lies on his deathbed, and his son Joseph and his grandchildren Ephraim and Menasheh come to visit. And Jacob takes this opportunity to offer his fatherly blessings to Joseph and his sons; they are the first to receive these blessings.

The Torah tells us that “this is the way Jacob blessed Joseph” … and Jacob proceeds to bless his grandchildren, not Joseph. He does bless Joseph, but not directly.

He says, “May the god in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked; the god who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day; the messenger who has redeemed me from all harm: bless these youths (referring to Ephraim and Menasheh). In them may my name be recalled. And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

Jacob demonstrates that through his grandchildren—in all that their father has accomplished, and in every act that they will achieve in their lives to come—through his grandchildren will Joseph also come to be a blessing.

Perhaps this is a clue about why we, in the Jewish community, focus so intently upon our children. It is through them that we might better see our values lived out, that is, what we have taught them, and the priorities they have toward the world.

In the imagery of Ray Bradbury, a person who has striven with the world; someone who has, perhaps, been broken by their experiences yet is still walking and present in the world: it is through these people that goodness is perceived and properly evaluated.

Perhaps Jacob’s cynical words to Pharaoh, then, were not a skeptical commentary on his misfortunes. They were honest feelings, to be sure, but perhaps they represented the scars that Joseph acquired in his lifetime quest to instill decent values in his children.

In this quest, Jacob likely succeeded, for the Torah relates that his family carried on their traditions by burying their patriarch using the customs of the land of Israel, alongside Egyptian burial traditions. Both the native traditions, and the assimilated practices of their foreign home, were used. Overall, the descendants of Jacob, living in a foreign land and waiting to be brought back to the land that God promised to them, maintained their family practices and institutions, while assimilating some parts of their new culture.

A challenge for us to ponder as the year closes and a new one begins is this: Will we learn to mindfully discover how best to bequeath blessings to our physical and spiritual descendants, and remain upbeat and hopeful about the future?

I wish us all success.


[1] George Santayana (1863-1952) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

[2] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.”

[3] Sara Shepard (b. 1977) “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”

[4] Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten....

[5] Genesis 35:22

[6] Bradbury, Ray. “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. Copyright 1962, 1980, 1997, by Ray Bradbury, page 124-125.

May 23, 2019 18 Iyar 5779