|Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph by Rembrandt|
Another point worth mentioning is that at the end of reading this parsha and the book of Bereishis, we all say in unison "Chazak! Chazak! V'Nis'chazeik!" "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!" Why do we say this at the end of this segment rather than at the commencement of our journey? This in and of itself highlights the importance of retaining momentum. We must complete our undertakings with the same level of zeal and enthusiasm with which we embark upon them. But how and where we direct this zeal and enthusiasm is crucial. Inherently, we exist in a world where much is hidden from our perception. We see only part of the whole picture. At times it can feel like standing too close to an Impressionistic painting--it's all a blur of texture and color but makes no sense to our human intellect, which craves a whole image. We feel disoriented and disconcerted. At other points, it can feel like we are standing at too broad a distance, too far to touch, feel or perceive anything real. We feel alienated and disconnected. In either stance, we can feel lonely, isolated and confused.
When I was a little bit older, I noticed one night at bedtime that a firefly was caught in a spider's web outside my bedroom window. Every few seconds it glowed with a light so intense and fierce that I imagined if I could just stay awake all night, I could preserve this perpetual bliss. I was old enough at this point, however, to know that by morning that light would be extinguished. At some point I gave in to the pull of childlike sleepiness and in the morning I woke up sobbing. The firefly might as well have never been there at all. Perhaps so taken under by the sadness of losing that small bit of light I even missed the boundless rays of sunshine peering through that very same window...
|Cape Cod, May, 2000|
These are the pivotal moments of childhood. We attempt to adhere and apply life and meaning to everything around us. At once, we toss our caution to the wind living with a fearlessness and carefree demeanor that in seemingly only moments, we will lose and long to get back. As we grow, we learn to scoff at the silliness of thinking a balloon can feel or the pettiness of crying over the inevitable demise of a firefly. We learn that undoubtedly the sun will fall and at times, so will we. It seems better in the long-run to attempt to brace ourselves for that. But then we live in that constant state of waiting: an exhausting readiness to at once both wage war and surrender altogether. Red balloons start to shine a little less vibrantly. Fireflies seem a bit less mysterious. We turn to science and logic to place parameters around the beauty and richness of the salty beach air blowing in with the tide.
And suddenly, almost without warning, we are no longer children. Growing up, as it turns out, was not something that happens gradually or takes forever. It was as instantaneous and implausible as all of the balloons, fireflies and sunsets we'd ever known. And instead of seeing the limitless possibilities we once were sure accompanied a later bedtime and the right to cross the street alone, we only perceive the boundaries that suddenly box us in. No more are the possibilities endless; it's time to start crossing things off the list. I won't be a dinosaur or a firefighter or a ballerina. And as we grow bigger, our world grows seemingly smaller. We start to temper our boundless zeal with protective parameters of caution. We put up some mighty big guard rails, and we're now more careful about who and how and what we let inside...
Interestingly, even though this Torah portion highlights the death of Yaakov, it clearly states the following: "Vayechi Yaakov," meaning, "and Jacob lives." The beautiful message we can glean from this is that much in the way of the whens and how-longs of life are not revealed to us. Even the hows and whys are often disguised. We, being human, crave measurable boundaries and limiting categories. If we are to feel close and vulnerable with someone, we want to know for how long they will be with us and how exactly we can define that love. If we are to appreciate the beauty of a sunset, we want to know exactly where it will end. If we are to enjoy the childlike charm of a balloon or the mysterious light of a firefly, we want to know exactly how long it will last. And we can't. We shouldn't. We're not supposed to. To see our connections through the limiting lens of linear time would inhibit us from ever loving fully and selflessly. To be present in that moment that the sun fades behind the horizon, that the balloon falls, that the firefly's light is forever extinguished--would all be too painful to bear. We would never be able to cling to those moments with the same level of intensity and childlike lack of restraint. Instead, we are given a gift. Through living with death, like Yaakov, we will someday die with Life.The finite aspects of this world are hidden to us such that our infinite hope can be revealed. And through that, albeit in a very limited and human way, we can experience the boundlessness and wholeness of a loving, compassionate and infinite Creator.