Descent and Ascent in Parashah Vayechi

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

The portion begins, Vayechi, Jacob was living, really living now, even in Egypt he is meta-alive. We want to believe as he is drawing up his legs to die that real life, full life, can happen to him anywhere, any time, any conditions.

He lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; his two lives were about over. The life of Jacob, the life of Israel; sometimes he is Jacob sometimes he is Israel. Sometimes he is a giver sometimes he is a taker. This is the way it is, Jacob transformed [Israel] and Jacob untransformed [hello again Jacob]. 

So loaded this word that begins the portion: Vayechi, and he lived; I am writing this the week after the catastrophe in Newtown and the root word for life is a live coal. I can barely think of anything else though with the passing days the subject diminishes in our country’s mind.

The portion is closed, that means there is no break in the Torah scroll between the beginning of this portion and the end of last week’s portion. Clue.

There is a flow; no break but a gradual lessening of consciousness around the most important of notions that as the days advance, less of our attention is drawn eastward and that horrible scene and what it means: Newtown, Conn.

The portion is closed because the full meaning of these events are still closed to us; it will take some time and good deal of self reflection until we as a culture come to understand what does it mean in our time these horrific scenes. Some want to talk gun control, some want to talk mental illness resources, some want to talk violence in the media, I want to talk to everybody about everything. I want to look in the mirror as a society and ask the deepest questions: what is wrong with us, all of us, and not cease asking until there is a comprehensive answer and a sweeping strategy for change.

The poet Rashi reads the clue of the closed portion this way: the eyes of Israel were closed, like the portion, because of the passing of our dear Jacob and because the crafty Egyptians were rolling the story towards slavery and that disaster.

Here’s the question: If disaster is a series of events that we are moving toward, where can we enter the story and stop its movement? Is there a way to enter the tale and interrupt the decline toward catastrophe?

This is no theoretical question. How many catastrophes do we have to endure before we plant ourselves in our story and say: this stops here. Columbine,

Denver, Sandy Hook, can we step into our story now and de-accelerate this terrible descent into madness?

O holy father Jacob, I honor your living into the descent toward slavery, I am looking to you for some direction. How will we accelerate the movement toward redemption if we can’t intercede somewhere and interrupt the descent? We’re looking for the guts to say this stops here and we lived.