D’var Torah: Beginnings and endings

Rabbi Justin Kerber

By Rabbi Justin S. Kerber

Less than a week before the start of the Jewish New Year, Erev Rosh Hashanah, our family was blessed with a new baby. Amid the joy of this fall, as we have entered him into the Covenant of Abraham and formally named him after beloved family members we remember, everyone in our home has had to adjust to this sudden and radical change.

The smooth equilibrium that we had established is gone; in its place are big family gatherings and night-time feedings, efforts to establish new bath-time and bed-time rituals, figuring out a new morning routine. These are wonderful challenges. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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It’s just that it makes me think about new beginnings. New beginnings are hard because almost any new beginning is also a new ending. It has been said that when one door closes, another door opens – but it can be hell in the hallway.

Our Torah portion this week is Va-yish’lakh, Genesis 32:4-36:43. Not only is a new baby born in this portion (gratifying to a parent), but it is rich with new beginnings and bittersweet endings in general.

Va-yish’lakh is framed by the ending of last week’s portion, Va-yei’tzei, in which Jacob and his family secretly depart from Jacob’s uncle and Rachel and Leah’s father Laban’s home in Aram. The escape itself is a potent beginning and an irrevocable ending for this new family arrangement. No sooner has our portion begun than Jacob’s family is faced with another harrowing confrontation: with Jacob’s long-estranged and possibly still-enraged brother Esau.

But their meeting ends their old relationship and begins a new one. Jacob’s encounters with Laban and Esau are the ending of his youth, and especially of being threatened by older, more powerful male relatives. They also represent the beginning of Jacob’s adulthood as a patriarch.

Jacob’s name change to Israel is divinely confirmed, hinting at a change in the man’s character: from Ya’akov, the crooked player who has tripped up Esau since he held his heel at birth, to Yisrael, a more straight, narrow, and upright bearing. Yet at Beit-El, the very site of Jacob’s grand vision of a ladder reaching from Heaven to Earth, G1d’s presence “lifts” from Jacob. Maybe he is no longer such a crafty player, but maybe he loses his capacity to commune with God’s presence, too.

Rachel gives birth to her desperately-craved second son. Yet as is still much too common across the world today, the baby’s birth causes the mother’s death. But at Rachel’s death Jacob erects a matzeivah, the first headstone. Ever since, such monuments have allowed us to honor and visit our dead.

Just as we have seen that new beginnings are also endings; so too is every ending also a new beginning. Each of us must cope with beginnings and endings, joyful gains and painful losses, sometimes simultaneously. In the midst of life’s new beginnings, let us acknowledge life’s losses; but let us not overlook the wonderful beginnings that may also be hidden in life’s endings.

Parashat Va-yishlakh

Rabbi Justin S. Kerber serves Temple Emanuel and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.