December 18, 2010 / 11 Tevet, 5771
Today we heard the end of the beginning. In the beginning of the beginning, HShem commanded us to be “fruitful and multiply”, pru-urvu. A bit later Hshem told a questioning Abraham, your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. But they will live in a land not their own for 400 years and only then will they live in the Promised Land. Then there was Isaac and there was Jacob. Hshem repeated the promise to Jacob and Jacob did have descendants. There were the twelve sons, a daughter, wives, little ones, and tons of sheep. They had gone down to Egypt where there was food.
One day Jacob pulled up his feet into his bed and died.
Seventeen years ago, Jacob had come south for the winter from the hill county. It was the snow, the famine, and more generally the hard life in the hills. The delta was the place to retire. His son was some kind of Grand Vizier/ COO, he really didn’t know too much of what he did for a living. The rest of the family had also relocated to the southland. More jobs, better grazing, something like that. And without his wives it was nice to have a different place to go for dinner each Shabbat. Someone to make Jacob lamb stew. He wasn’t much for the savory deer stew they made up in the north.
Now Jacob was sitting in a hospital room in King Tut-Memorial hospital. There was a bed with IV pole and a big straight backed chair. The other bed in the room had been rolled out to make room for the children. It was still afternoon and the spring sun came over the river and into the window. Jacob had known he was sick for quite some while, but when he stopped eating he knew his time was soon. At the hospital the physicians saw that his time was near. Death has its own skin color and every good physician can recognize it without spending 1,000 shekels of gold on an MRI. Then Jacob stopped drinking and this day he felt suddenly strong again. Joseph brought the children and all the brothers assembled.
Jacob loved Joseph’s children. While Joseph was busy running Egypt or whatever it was he did for a living that wasn’t being a doctor, Jacob took care of the little ones. He got them up and got them breakfast and took them off to preschool. They were in the bilingual preschool, learning Hebrew and Egyptian. It was a very liberal preschool and they sung well known songs like “You have a friend in Zeus,” and recited odes to the Sun, as well as yet undiscovered favorites like Ashrei. When Jacob took them home at lunch time, he regaled them with the stories of times of old. Of his wrestling match, and the world of Laban, of Isaac’s wells and mother Rachel. He told them of a secret world of Shabbat and of candles and of roast chicken and that the cave of Machpelah held not just the family, but the secrets of the universe. And of the promise. Ephraim and Manasseh, he said, El Shaddai is God. There is no other God. It is not Pharaoh, or Zeus or the Sun. God has promised us that we will be a great nation. And we have promised him that we will have no other Gods. Manasseh heard the message but wanted to play camel caravan, but Ephraim’s eyes glowed with a mysterious glow when Jacob told his stories.
A few thousand years later Rabbi Israel, son of Eliezer, better known as the Bal Shem Tov, received a remarkable volume. It was the book of Adam and had last been in the possession of Rabbi Adam. Rabbi Adam had a problem. He could see that his own son didn’t have the mysterious glow needed to possess the secrets of the universe, which he had fetched from the Cave of Machpelah. The book of Adam had been given to Adam, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua ben Nun, and to Rabbi Adam. Of his son he said, the fluid is too hot for the vessel. With Rabbi Adam’s death, his son was tasked with finding Israel, son of Eliezer, and giving him the book. This he did, but his soul wanted to read the book and would die without it. Israel saw it was no use and they studied the book together. But it was as Rabbi Adam foretold, the vessel could not withstand the fluid and broke. The young rabbi’s soul departed.
It was a mysterious red twilight, when Jacob talked to his assembled sons, the torah records his saying something about the future. Sensibly, I will tell you my children what will befall you in the future. Messianically, I will tell you about the end of days. In the instant after he said this line, he regretted it.
It’s the Starship Enterprise. They have been rocketed back in time by a nasty rogue planet. Or they have landed and found a strange time machine offering them adventures. Within a commercial or two, they are up against a changed future, one in which all their friends blink out of existence. What have they done? Why did saving that women destroy the Federation? Will warp ever be invented if they don’t return the earthling? So back in time they go and they put things back the way they were.
His oldest kids just aren’t his type. Leah’s big kids, Reuben, Shimon, and Levi.
So Jacob married Leah. Look at the wedding pictures, he doesn’t look so happy. The official version is that he was tricked, but the family stories include all sorts of variants. Shimon and the older boys say that Leah was plenty pretty and Jacob was fooling around with her on the back hump of a camel. The wedding and Reuben’s birth are awful close together they say. The old man and Leah’s boys never really hit it off.
Shimon and Levi were close with uncle Esav. He taught them how to hunt and make the special venison stew. They would sneak off to be with real men whenever they didn’t have obligations with the sheep. They took on a whole town on behalf of their sister and got no thanks for it. For them, Rachel’s kids, particularly Joseph, were just sissy’s. Hopelessly pampered by father, never really accountable for any real work, dressed in dandy’s clothes. Probably played with pink ponies. Just disgusting.
So Shimon and Levi were none too surprised that the big blessing passed them by and that the old man cursed them one last time. Reuben was none too surprised either. That couch episode was a little hard to explain. They weren’t all that far apart in age, it being Rachel’s maid, and he didn’t have all that much respect for his dad in these matters because of his dad’s neglect of mom. And the maid was pretty. She was the one who suggested a mug of wine after work and he suggested that they should stay close together because of the hyenas and….. But what was dad so mad about? Chapter 19 of Leviticus was still at least 400 years in the future. It’s not like he was eating blood, killing anyone, or tearing live animals. Wasn’t he just helping the blessing along with a little pru-urvu? Of course nobody else saw it his way.
So the older boys didn’t care much for the “blessing” but they didn’t really go in with any illusions either. Frankly it was a relief that Judah was their leader. Though Reuben was having trouble seeing why the Tamar episode qualified Judah to lead any more than he was qualified. But the older boys could feel the shift in the ground. With father gone, it was just the twelve brothers against the world. Shivtai Israel was born at Jacob’s death. Time to hang together or hang separately. Twelve almond branches, but who knew that Levi’s would bud? Yes, having Judah in charge had advantages. Judah would get to make the decisions on war and they would get to carry it out. There was plenty of necessary violence, what with avenging honor, protecting wells, repelling poachers, and getting respect from the likes of Avimelech. And those pesky Egyptians with their sissified manners needed to be kept at bay.
And that thing about animals. Hunting was a blood sport, but nobody at the funeral was complaining about the venison stew. It easily outsold the lentil porridge, a big pot of which was sitting uneaten in a corner.
The middle brothers, those from the concubines, didn’t do well in the blessings either. They had been loyal children and now were consigned to a few lines. Yisachar was pretty miffed. He had inherited the family knack for breeding sheep and knew all the secrets of speckled and striped sheep. It was because of him that everyone ate. But instead of being praised for his prowess with the flocks, he was being cursed. Just a coward crouching among the sheep according to the commentators. He wasn’t surprised because the workers of the world never got a good deal, not since Cain the father of cities, and Abel. The glory goes to the dreamer of dreams and to the workers, nothing.
Once two men were brothers in law. One man knew everything. He read 14 books a week. He excelled at Bridge and Scrabble. Things no one else could fix, he could fix. He might even have seen to the end of things, but was smart enough not to reveal that. But at business, he was a near zero. The other was just an ordinary guy. He worked at his business, he made money, he lost at scrabble and bridge. The first was Joseph and the second Yisachar.
The torah doesn’t record it but Yisachar finally did get his due a three thousand or so years later. His descendants included Joe Hill and Samuel Gompers. Yisachar was the father of all who stood up for the working man.
If you truly loathe the tax breaks for the rich, you have a little of Yisachar in you.
Dinah was still around. Turns out that Dinah went to college or what passed for college in those days after the rape incident. She never had any children. Jacob did get a last chat with her and he asked her about pru-urvu. Did she have problems like mother Rachel and mother Sarah? It does run in the family you know. But these days there are doctors that can help you. Not so, says Dinah, not that at all. She had become a performance artist complete with black turtle necks and buddy holly glasses. Very well known and respected and her work sold well. But there was just never time between the art and the friends and cutting edge shows to have children. Her current man was a professor of Hittite and he worked on post-Neanderthal theory. Why Dinah wanted to know did she not get part of the big blessing. It is an pru-urvu thing, Jacob explained. You can’t have the blessing if you forget to have children.
Joseph got all the best blessing lines. But Jacob revealed nothing new to him. He didn’t need to. Joseph had dreamed it all. Joseph’s dream of the 11 stars and the sun and the moon was the most intensely beautiful thing there ever was. He flew from the earth near the red of Mars and the rings of Saturn, out to the cold blueness of Neptune, and beyond to the helio-pause. There he became a beautiful star and he saw the faint sun and the fainter moon and 11 other stars. Then they bowed to him and he knew he must be loved by the most important thing in the universe. That Hshem was with him. And that none should terrify him. From his lofty star perch, Joseph saw beyond the four hundred years, beyond the two kingdoms, beyond the old kingdom, and beyond the Macabees. He saw all the way to the Herzl and there he saw the intense eyes of another dreamer and the dawn of another time in the land.
What Joseph never told anyone was that the time after his dreams was a time of dread, like dread Abraham felt when Hshem revealed the 400 years. It was Jacob’s own personal 400 years in galut. That everything was black, cold and forbidding. He got through these times because he knew adonai roi lo echsar and slowly he would be normal again. And there would be another dream. There would always be another dream. For that is the promise, that even the darkest night ends with the dawn of redemption.
The four hundred years of night didn’t surprise Jacob; he knew the chilling promise. What he saw was the results of success. Camel racing, sand drawing, pyramid gawking. Parties. Professional herdsman to work the animals. The children weren’t like the fathers. They didn’t pop off to visit uncle Esav in the wild desert or dig for wells in the hard sand. They didn’t marvel at the Nabatean ruins or hunt out copper and iron deposits. They weren’t to be found hanging around the forges where swords and chariot wheels were made. Not a one of them moved back to Hebron to run a café by the cave. Oh they did go to school and they weren’t stupid, but few of them had the burning need to accomplish anything that goes with the intense eyes of the dreamer.
After the blessing, the death and the funeral, the brothers, in their own way, came to terms with being Israel. They thought back to the blessing and instead of seeing Judah and Joseph as the winners of the blessing contest, they saw that they each had their own part.
We still carry that blessing. To each of us there is a little part. Together we are city and farm, peace and violence, and dream and work. Together our blessing is whole-- the blessings of the womb and the breast, the blessings that make us more numerous than the stars in the sky.