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Friday, December 17, 2010

Parshat Va'yehi: To Be or not To Be (edited)

[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.

Surprisingly, what I was drawn to in the parashah was simply the word Va’yehi.  Though it  means “he lived,” it is important to note that the formulation for what we would call past tense in Biblical Hebrew is not quite what one might expect.   

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. 

Not being a linguist, I went online to see if I could clarify this further.  There I found this explanation by Jeff A. Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center: “In the English language the verb tenses are related to time; past, present and future, while the Hebrew verbs are all related to action. The perfect tense is a completed action and in most cases is related to the English past tense (he cut). The imperfect tense is an incomplete action and is closely related to the English present and future tenses (he cuts or he will cut). The participle can be a current action or one who performs the action (a cutting or cutter).” 

This may seem like a case of semantics, but don’t say that to a linguist!  However, I also believe there is a deeper spiritual meaning to this as well. For if ancient Hebrew is concerned with action and not with time, it is as if no past or future exists.  There are only those actions that have been completed or have yet to be performed.  The idea of the participle in Hebrew also intrigues me.  For the way I was taught, it always refers to the current action as it relates to the actor or speaker.  In other words, one does say in Hebrew “I am a writer.”  Rather,  one says “I am [one in the process of] writing.”  Again, action is at the core of the word's meaning.

As I was [in the act of] typing these words, it also occurred to me that there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in ancient or modern Hebrew.  So really one is simply saying “I, writing.”   It is not that one’s identity is that of a writer, artist, or teacher.  Rather, this is simply the activity in which one is involving oneself in the moment.  The action is not the essence of one’s identity, but simply what the person is doing.  Therefore, it is not something to which one can actually become attached.  So, to my surprise, in a biblical grammar lesson, one can find the essence of mindfulness practice! 

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.

Being perfect or imperfect should not be the focus of our lives.  What we should focus on is simply being in the moment.  However, if there is no Hebrew for the present tense of the verb “to be” how can we actually "be" in the present?   

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!"

Though this may not be simple, but it is essential to realize that the action in which we are engaging is not one's identity, even if it might be one's job or career.  For example, for years I believed I was meant to be a congregational rabbi.  I believed it so much that it  became a huge part of my identity, and I became quite attached to it.  Looking back, I would clearly have said in those days “I am a congregational rabbi,” “I was someone who studied to become a congregational rabbi,” and “I will be a congregational rabbi.”  Congregational rabbi was my identity, my essence, my goal in life. Or so I believed.

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. 

Therefore, in the present moment, I let go of the present tense verb "am" and looked at "rabbi-ing" as a participle.  This also affected how I looked at what I called the past and future.  In viewing the arc of my life, looking back I saw myself as  someone studying to be a congregational rabbi.  But I needed to view my rabbinic studies as a  perfect verb.  It was a completed activity. It was no longer something in which I was involved.  Yet, I knew that there were things I learned when I had been engaged in my studies that would help me as I took the next step in my life and moved into the world of the imperfect.  The world of the unknown.  The imperfect world  is all potential, possibility and no reality.  Taking with me what I learned from what had been completed, but leaving behind the attachment to past or to my pseudo-identity, I was able to take my next step.  It was frightening and challenging.  There were a number of missteps along the way.  However, staying in the present as much as I could, and remembering that I was connected to those around me, to God and to the universe made the journey possible.  For I knew that I was not walking into the imperfect alone.

And so, I return to this week’s parashah.  It begins “Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years, and the years of his life were a hundred and forty-seven.”  The 147 years were perfect; their actions had been complete.  Yet, the word ‘yehi’, which is the imperfect, is included within the word ‘va’yehi’, which is the perfect.  Therefore, implied within the reality that Jacob had completed the actions of living for the past 147 is the acknowledgment of the unforeseen future.  In that moment, Joseph and his brothers, representing what was occurring in that moment, stood looking at their father, representing all that was complete. Joseph then brings in his two sons, representing the the realm of unrealized potential and possibility before Jacob, in order to be blessed.

At first, Jacob does not know who they are.  It is as if he cannot see them.  This is not because he is blind, but because they represented the unknown world of potential.  On the psychic-spiritual plane, it is as if they did not exist.  When they are finally brought close, Jacob can sense their present.  In that moment, the perfect, imperfect and participle, what is complete, what is happening and what has not yet occurred, are as brought together.  In that one moment, that which is completed acknowledges the reality that life is continuing in that moment even though its work is done.  But when asked to bless that which is yet to be, he cannot do so for he does not know what is to happen next.  Everyone expects Jacob to give the principle blessing to the elder son, thereby setting the future in motion.  However, Jacob crosses his hands, giving the younger the blessing of the elder, and vice versa.  Joseph reaches out to switch the hands back, so things will continue as he believes they are meant to.  He tries explaining to his father that he is making a mistake, but to no avail.

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."

The firm way in which Jacob ignores what Joseph wants him to do sends the message that there may be a kind of cosmic connection between what one might call past, present and future, it is not causal.  What will be is not predetermined.  Hence, when one is truly in the moment one has the freedom to say “this is what I am doing in this moment” without getting caught up in the ego's trap of (you didn't think I could write a commentary without using the word 'ego' at least once, did you?)  “this is who I am because of what has come before me,” "this is my identity because of the expectations I have created or which have been created by others," or “this is what I will be in the future because of where I was and where I am.”   

In the end, Jacob’s blessing of the crossed hands was the blessing of freedom from attachment and expectations.  It was the blessing of being in the moment, while not focusing on what has been or what may be.  Unfortunately, the lesson is taught, but not easily learned.  For the other blessings of his sons were all about past and future.  But at least for that one moment Jacob was able to break that cycle.

And so we leave the journey of the patriarchs and matriarchs with the death of Jacob and later Joseph.  Next week we begin the journey into and out of slavery, when a new Pharaoh arises who did not remember Joseph. Hopefully, our ancestors, and we, will learn some important lessons from this difficult journey.  I can’t wait to find out!

Shabbat Shalom

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