Included within this week’s parasha is Ya’akov’s blessing of his sons before his death. He begins his poetic testament with his firstborn Reuven, who receives condemnation for his illicit relationship with Bilhah. He moves on to Simeon and Levi whom he criticizes for their actions at Shechem and for being cruel in general. Then he moves to Judah.
One would think that Judah would receive some negative testimony as well. This is the one that was in on the conspiracy to kill Yosef and then came up with the suggestion they make a little money and sell him, all the while deceiving his father into thinking his favorite son was dead. This is the one who had relations with his daughter in law thinking she was a prostitute. Certainly we could make a case that this should not have been a privileged son, one who would receive such a blessing over his other brothers. But as we saw last week, a great change had come in Yehudah’s life. He had pledged himself to Ya’akov for Benjamin’s protection and when it came time to take that action, he showed he was a man of his word, willing to remain a slave in Benjamin's place. He had taken leadership when his brothers would not, speaking boldly to the second highest Egyptian official in the land. Ya’akov had obviously taken note of this and coupled with the disqualification of the previous three sons, to whom no real change is ascribed, Yehudah is the logical choice to receive the blessing.
Yehudah is promised leadership over his brothers, who will praise him, he is promised victory over his foes and that the scepter of leadership would not depart from his descendents until Shiloh comes. Ancient traditions, found in the texts at Qumran, in the targums and in early rabbinic literature say that Shiloh is a messianic title. This is supported by the equivalent gamatria for ‘Shiloh comes’ and ‘messiah’. It also fits in with the context. Ya’akov begins his testament by saying that he is going to reveal to them what is going to befall them in the ‘last days’ but then goes on to rebuke Reuven, Simion and Levi. Did he change his mind or was the revelation hidden? Not at all, Ya’akov was merely giving the reasons why the promise of the messiah would not be found in the lines of Yehudah’s older brothers.
“’The scepter shall not depart’. This means the kingly throne,....”The lawgiver from between his feet,’..refers to the time when the King will come to whom belongs the kingdom.” Midrash Tanhuma. Judah was to have authority in Israel until Shiloh, the Messiah, came. He has come in the person of Yahushua. And the messiah took the authority that had been given to Judah and transferred it to those who were part of his kingdom, regardless of parentage. “Whatever you bind (prohibit) on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose (permit) shall be loosed in heaven.” This was the authority he gave his talmidim, it is authority that comes with a very heavy responsibility. But it is a responsibility we must take up with seriousness and wisdom. He has given us, not the rabbis, not the supreme court of Israel, not the sanhedrin; he has given us the authority to interpret and apply Torah. What we need to do is train and study and pray to show ourselves worthy of such a great privilege and responsibility. And then men and women need to rise up in the community who will take on this responsibility in a sincere, humble manner, seeking what is best for the community and true to the will of G-d.
This weeks portion begins with Ya’akov’s command to Yosef not to let him be buried in Egypt and concludes with Ya’akov’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah and Yosef’s similar petition to his children to take his bones with them when G-d takes them out of Egypt. When Ya’akov entreats Yosef with his desire, he doesn’t just accept Yosef's word that he will do it but binds him with an oath. There is something very important in this request to be buried in Eretz Israel.
For Ya’acov, the sages give several explanations for this urgent request. Ya’akov was a prophet and knew that eventually G-d would destroy Egypt with a series of plagues, including ‘kinim’, usually translated as lice. He did not want his body to be subject to this plague. Previously he had blessed Pharaoh, showing how highly regarded he was in Egypt and he was also concerned that the Egyptians would set his grave up as a shrine and worship him. Finally, he did not want to delay his resurrection, believing that those outside of the land do not come to life until they move through the earth into the land.
I believe that the primary reason for his request was to establish the centrality of the land of Israel for his descendants. He was worried they would eventually get too comfortable in the land of Egypt and forget where their real home was, what G-d had called the true promised land. Our previous parasha ended with the statement that they settled in the land, acquired property and they were fruitful and multiplied. They were putting down roots and bringing up the next generation without an experience in the promised land. By taking the clan back to the land for his funeral he would have exposed his grandchildren and great grandchildren to their true heritage. He wanted to make sure that they saw the good land and developed a longing for it. Except for the prophesy given to Avraham, they should have left right after the famine, or at least after the death of Yosef.
Shemot, our next parasha, tells us what happened. They were in danger of getting too comfortable in Egypt and as they did, assimilation began to take it’s toll and had it run it’s course, the descendants of Avraham would have been absorbed into the larger Egyptian culture. YHVH was not about to let that happened so he had the next Pharaoh separate them from the Egyptians and by doing so, put them into servitude. This is an important lesson for Avraham’s descendants today. They can maintain their identity and heritage voluntarily through Torah faithfulness or G-d will force the Gentile nations to separate them and enforce their identity. The most assimilated Jews in the twentieth century were the Jews of Germany. The separation and the forced identification of Jews there and throughout the world was one of the most painful in Jewish history. It happened in Babylon in the time of Esther and with the Greeks 200 years before the Messiah. Each time there was horrible persecution planned or executed and G-d blessed the faithful and delivered them. If the children of Avraham would learn from their own history they would be a strong, blessed people who would not find themselves in these positions of desperation again.
This week we end Bereshit and we say goodby to the last of the patriarchs. Both Ya’akov and Yosef ‘sleep with their fathers’ at the end of this parasha. Except for Elijah and Enoch, this has been the way of all the men and women of Scripture, and of all mankind. Our own mortality is not something we like to dwell on, particularly when we are younger. However, as the events of the last several months have demonstrated, death can come unexpectedly sitting in the safety of an office. Or at the wheel of a car. Or with a sudden and tragic diagnosis. Life can end in a moment or a few weeks. Do we ignore this fact, do we dwell on it? Do we fear it? Looking at the way the patriarchs dealt with their own deaths can help us deal with this universal event.
There are two things we notice about the patriarchs approach to death that differ from our own experience, one cultural and one spiritual. Culturally, death was a real, everyday experience to people in the ancient world and even in our own until fifty years ago. Death from disease, famine or war was a part of life in the past when life expectancy was low and one’s chances of surviving infancy weren’t that good. People saw other people die all the time. It was a part of life and people learned to live with that fact. One hundred years ago, it was still this way in most places in the world. Today in the western world, we don’t see death. Death is confined to hospitals and taken care of in the funeral home. Death from disease in the western world is an anomaly until old age is reached, famine does not affect us and until Sept. 11, war was something that happened somewhere else. The death of an infant or a young person is news because it’s rare. Most people who live normal lifestyles will live for sixty or seventy years, perhaps longer. Most will die in a hospital or nursing home, often without family and friends nearby. They will be sanitized for the funeral, we will see the made up face for a few moments and then they will be put in a plot seldom visited. Because death is not part of our everyday experience, it is seen as an unwelcome intruder, a specter to be feared and held off or hidden. It is the source of all the rest of our fears. When we are embarrassed we say, ‘Oh I could have just died!’. We equate many of our negative emotional states to death because it is our fundamental fear.
So how could the patriarchs and others in scripture face death so calmly, without fear? Because they had died long ago. If death had already happened, what is there to fear? Fear is rooted in our concept of ourselves. We create this fiction of who we are, we call it the ego or the ‘I’ and then we attach it to our impermanent body. It is not real, it only exists in our minds. It is no more real than the picture of us that other people have that may be more or less accurate. It is this illusion we hold onto so stubbornly. It is the source of our pride and identity and knowledge. It gets embarrassed, it gets hurt, it fantasizes. We create it as we get older, children don’t have it. It is because we fear the destruction of our illusion that we fear death, we fear embarrassment, we fear truth. We choose to remain blind and deaf.
The patriarchs and all the great spiritual men of scripture understood the reality of who they were, they did not live in an illusion. Because they left the illusion, they put it to death, they died to ‘self’, they could experience the connection with their God in a way that made what we call ‘spiritual reality’ an everyday reality. Y’shua said that God is spirit and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. They connected moment by moment with the eternal, they experienced life in the eternal, eternal life. To someone that lives in such a way, death is just a physical bump in the road of existence. It is not something to be feared. Once there is no fear of death, life can really begin. We become alive to every moment, we commune with God, we are free to act and love.
“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him. Love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement, because in this world we are like Him. There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love.” I John 4:16-18
In this parasha, Ya’akov blesses his sons. We have seen this phenomenon quite a few times in Bereshit and it is a common occurrence in Tenach. There is, however, a specific blessing that is passed down from Avraham to Yitzach to Ya’acov and now to Yosef. It is limited to direct descent and is not given to others. The question is, what is it?
Yosef is blessed with “the blessings of heaven above, the deep below, the blessing of the bosom and womb.....the endless bounds of the worlds hills.” Ya’akov was blessed with “the dew of heavens and the fatness of the earth...peoples will serve you...” The blessing to Yitzak is not specifically recounted. It only says that “Avraham gave Yitzak everything.” Most think that this is the promise that Avraham’s descendant would inherit the land and his descendants would be a numerous as the stars in the sky. Not quite. No one has the ability to predict or force future generations to follow a specific course of action. If that was true the story of Israel would have read very differently. The blessing was the power to make it happen, the power of heaven and earth, if that power was used wisely. The power I am talking about is what is commonly referred to as ‘knowing God’. In order to understand this, we first need to understand who God is and then we can develop an idea of what the blessing is.
YHVH Elohim, what does this term/name mean? Elohim is the totality of the created universe, all the matter and power that exists. YHVH is the kinetic energy, the active force, the ‘first and continuing cause’, that brings the order of creation about. It is, at it’s root, impersonal. ‘Knowing YHVH’ is not relational but the practical reality of being in harmony with the creative force in it’s totality. As we read the biblical text and see people relating to or talking to YHVH, it is an attempt to use a common point of reference and the confines of everyday language and terms to describe a transcendent experience. It is similar to the relation of a dream. Dreams do not follow the rules or conventions that govern our normal lives. For example, one can have two or more YHVH’s in the text or some other obvious contradiction and although our Greek minds attempt to make sense of it, applying the rules of logic, dreams do not follow logical patterns and have their own rules of interpretation. The key to understanding YHVH is to first find the proper context to understand the way the experience has been related by the person who had it and then enter into that experience so one can understand the common points of reference.
It is our ignorance of this that causes so many problems. For example, idolatry is a result of attempting to invent a relationship with the creative force. Those who have not had the transcendent experience with the power know they should be connecting with something beyond themselves. Because they don’t have the reality, they invent a context in which they can have such an experience according to a worldview they understand, usually a relational one. The creative force then becomes personified as ‘father’ or ‘brother’ or ‘wife’, all of which have been expressed in idolatrous contexts over the millennia. Since the context of the experience has been invented, the rules and expectations surrounding the experience are completely subjective. This subjectivity results in the great variety of religious expression we see today and have seen throughout most of history. All religion and it’s interpretation are the result of a man’s invention of a substitute for a transcendent experience he knows exists but cannot, for some reason, experience. Such individuals then bring about some kind of experience, usually through psychological manipulation, and convince themselves they have found the way and seek to convert others. The worst results are from those who are convinced they alone know the truth or hold the key. Such belief has led to untold bloodshed throughout the ages.
The ability to actually ‘know God’ and be in harmony with the universe also brings with it the ability to manipulate the creation. We were formed with this power. ‘YHVH breathed into us’ means that the kinetic energy of the universe is within us. Originally, this meant that the adam had the ability to manipulate and control his environment in ways we can only imagine. He could be in harmony with all the animals and the garden met all of his needs. After the fall, this was no longer the case but the potential remained. Noach had it and recognized that the course of action mankind had taken would result in an imbalance in creation so severe that a catastrophic readjustment would take place. He prepared accordingly. Avraham left the confines of idolatry in Ur and after spending years in the nomadic lifestyle, got in touch with the created order enough to exercise it’s power. Apparently he was the first one with the ability or knowledge to pass this power on to his descendants and with such a power could foresee them being numerous and powerful. The blessing did not cause it but gave them the ability to see it happen if they used it wisely. He passed this blessing to Yitzach. Ya’akov received it from his father even though it was by deception. It would seem that the passing on of this ability to be in touch with the creative power of the universe is not always dependent on righteousness. And the exercise of this power is not always done in a wise manner. We have looked at the ‘law of unintended consequences’ and have seen how both Ya’akov and Yosef exercised this power in a way that was selfish and resulted in negative consequences down the line.
The key to obtaining the blessing seems to be according to two different paths. The one we have been dealing with is that of direct transference, usually by the laying on of hands by someone who has the blessing. The second is to develop the characteristics through lifestyle that put one in touch with the created order in an intense and powerful way. This was the route of Avraham, Moshe, David, many of the prophets and even Y’shua. We were all created with the potential, we are all children of Adam. In order to obtain it we must stop living by and believing in the illusion we or others have created and begin to operate according to reality.