We are Israel when we devote ourselves to God

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This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, brings to a close the literary cycle of Genesis. Jacob/Israel, reunited with his son Joseph, bestows his blessings upon his 12 sons, as well as his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh, passes away, and is buried with the patriarchs and matriarchs in the cave of Machpelah, in Hebron. 

Subsequently, the brothers are reassured by Joseph that he has forgiven them for their treachery years before, and the children of Israel settle down to life in Egypt.

The midrash tells us that when Jacob/Israel’s sons were gathered at his bedside, he expressed fear that they would be led astray in Egypt. But, in unison, they immediately replied, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one!” 

In relief and gratitude, Jacob/Israel cried out, “Blessed be the Name of God’s dominion forever and ever!” – hence the placement of that sentence immediately after the Shema in our liturgy.

Jacob/Israel certainly had cause to worry. Egypt possessed an alluring, world-leading culture and ideologies. In the face of such temptations, it would have been easy for the brothers and their descendants to assimilate.  

The same has been true throughout our history. It is often utterly inconvenient to be a Jew. Expert in assimilation, we could have disappeared centuries ago. But we have shown the will to perpetuate our existence. Indeed, we have no alternative. There are ways of life that can be allies of Judaism, but never substitutes. 

Jewish faith consists of devotion to God; adherence to Torah; and loyalty to Israel, both the people and the land. But this, indeed, is the secret of our history: to be ultimately loyal to the God whose uniqueness and unity we were the first to discover. 

We are Israel when we devote ourselves to the covenant with and experience of God.  

This experience of God is the result of a mutual search. The midrash says of Abraham that at age 3, he began to wonder what was God. Awed by the radiance of the sun, he thought it was God. When night fell and the moon replaced the sun, he decided the moon was God.  When clouds covered the moon, he changed his allegiance, but only until the wind swept the clouds away. 

Finally, Abraham came to the realization that God was beyond all natural phenomena, and that God was one. It was for that one that Abraham began to reach – and for whom his descendants have continued to reach.

The search was not one-sided, though. The midrash portrays God as recognizing that there could be no divine sovereignty without human fealty. And so, at Sinai, God reached out. The covenant established there symbolizes God’s search for humanity. The TANAKH stands as the record of God’s search for us. It is significant to note, in fact, that more statements are found in the TANAKH about God’s love for Israel than about Israel’s love for God.

We have sought out God, and, reciprocally, God has sought out us. It is that mutual search, that despite persecution and attempted extermination, has kept us reciting daily, “Ashrenu, mah tov chelkenu; Fortunate are we. How good is our destiny, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage.” 

We are conscious of the fact that there is meaning and purpose to Jewish living and Jewish existence. We know that we are a living link between the two poles of history: Sinai and the ultimate reign of God. But we often lose sight of our destiny, and allow ourselves to become chullin, profane, in place of kadosh, holy. 

What we must do is re-establish our sense of holiness, and our dedication to it, in our personal lives and in the life of the community. We owe it to God, to ourselves, to those who have come before, and to those who will come after.

Our ancestors maintained this heritage in order that it might be passed on to us.  We must do the same for our children, and their children, and their children’s children, so they may take up and pursue the sacred mission whose greatest reward is the link to the ultimate.

In the story “The Valley of Echoes,” by Gerard Klein, three astronauts are searching for evidence of life on Mars. Day after day, they travel across unchanging, boring terrain. One of them, named Ferrier, is frustrated almost to the point of despair and madness.

Then one day, they come across a natural amphitheater nestled in a range of crystal mountains. And as they cautiously enter the amphitheater, they begin to detect something.  It is voices – unintelligible, but voices nonetheless. 

They shout, but the only reply is that of their own voices added to the other reverberations.  Suddenly, it dawns on them that somehow this valley has preserved the echoes of those who had inhabited the planet untold ages before. It is the one sign and remainder of the civilization they had sought for so long.

Ferrier, however, driven to desperation by his search, cannot remain on the outside, but rushes into the middle of the valley, the better to hear the echoes. To his and his companions’ horror, the echoes then become muffled. His body has become an acoustic screen, and before he can be pulled out of the way, the echoes fade, gone forever. 

Well, the choice is ours. Will we dampen the echoes of eternity, or will we add our voices to the divine chorus? We have meaning, and purpose. We know what we should be doing, and why. 

How would Jacob/Israel respond to our reply to his concern?  Let us lead him again to call out, “Blessed be the Name of God’s dominion forever and ever!”

RABBI  BENJAMIN LEFKOWITZ is an adjunct professor of history at Roger Williams University and the Community College of Rhode Island.