[In order to post this commentary in time for Shabbat, I feel that I left a few loose ends, as well as some inconsistencies and error. Such as making Jacob only 47 and not 147! So here is a newly edited version. This is still a work in process, so I would love any comments, questions or suggestions. spn]
This week we conclude the reading of the Book of Bereshit/Genesis with Parshat Va’yehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26). The name and first word of the parashah/portion means, “he lived.” This refers to Jacob, who is on his deathbed. He had been brought down to Egypt to live with his beloved son Joseph, whom he thought dead for over 20 years. Now, after 17 years in Egypt he is ready, at the age of 147, for his life to end. He gathers his twelve sons around his bed (daughter Dinah has long since disappeared from the narrative. But that is for another time), as well as Manasseh and Ephraim, Joseph’s sons by his Egyptian wife Osnat. When he blesses his two grandsons, he crosses his hands, thereby giving the preferred blessing of the elder child to the younger. And so, this family tradition that blessed Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau and Judah over his elder brothers continues on to the next generation. Perhaps.
The word “yehi” by itself means “he shall live.” Yet, when you put the va’ in front of it, the meaning changes to “he lived.” A v’ or va’ before a word usually serves as the conjunction ‘and’ or ‘but.” However, when it appears as a prefix to a future tense verb it transforms the verb to the past tense. But not really. For in Biblical Hebrew there is no past or future tense. As my Biblical Hebrew professor drilled into our heads, there are only the perfect and imperfect forms of the verb, along with the participle.
In mindfulness, we learn that the present moment is all that exists. The past is but a memory and the future is a dream, a fantasy. Biblical Hebrew reinforces this notion. Neither past nor future is real. There are only the actions we have completed. They are perfect, not because they are without blemish or error, as we normally define it, but because they are both complete and completed actions. And the “future” is imperfect because it consists of imagined actions that have yet to be or yet to be finished. We have no idea what form it will take, if any. It is imperfect.
If there were a true present tense one could say I am a writer. I am a rabbi. I am a teacher. But with predicates, all we can describe is the action in which we are engaged...the thought we are thinking...the feeling we are feeling. Of course, actions, thoughts and feelings, by their very nature, are impermanent. So if that is all we have, again, we cannot become attached. If only it were so simple! For we humans have a knack for getting ourselves attached to just about anyone or anything, whether or not they are technical "attachable!"
Then, due to unforeseen, difficult, but necessary, changes in my life, I found myself preparing to leave congregational life. This transition was painful and I tried to hold on to what I believed was my identity, not knowing what I would be without it! But the more I held on, the more I suffered. However, when I finally let go of the attachment and realized that congregational rabbi was not my identity, but simply what I was doing at that time, I was able to let go.
By not switching his hands back to where they "should be" it is as if Jacob is saying “preconceived notions and expectations of the what will be based on what has been (or even what is now) are also illusions.
"You may think you know what is to take place in the time to come based on what has been and what is happening now, but this is not true. The elder may usurp the younger, as has been our family's history. The younger may regain primacy over the elder, as we are told it "should" be. All may be well and all may be in chaos. All may be blessing and all may be curse. Some combination of all these may be true. We just don’t know. And so I shall do what I shall do knowing that it has no real bearing on what shall be."