This Shabbat, we conclude the Book of Genesis with Parashat Va-y’chi. Whenever we finish reading a book, even a book of Torah, it is important to reflect on where we have been, what we have covered since the beginning of the book. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that Genesis, like the Tanach as a
whole, “is a story without an ending which looks forward to an open future rather than reaching closure“. Although the loose ends of this particular part of the story are neatly tied up, we know we are not at the end of the story, but only at its beginning.
Indeed, throughout Genesis there has been a tension between the past and the future, between what was and what is yet to be. The covenant that God makes with Abraham serves to direct our attention toward the future. But, we also learn early on that this future will include being “strangers in a land not theirs” and being “enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.” In fact, the Book of Genesis ends with the word Mitzrayim, “Egypt,” as if to point us ahead to the Book of Exodus, which we will begin reading next Shabbat.
The tension between looking backward and ahead will continue throughout the Torah. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, hopeful to reach the Promised Land, they occasionally pine for the good old days in Egypt as they face hardship along the way. But though going back to Egypt might appear attractive in theory, it is never a real possibility. The journey must always move forward, with bumps along the way and a few detours, but always focused on the future. As Rabbi Sacks points out, Judaism views time markedly differently from other cultures. We don’t see time as cyclical, characterised by endless repetition. Rather, Rabbi Sacks writes, Judaism believes in “covenantal time, the story of the human journey in response to the divine call, with all its backslidings and false turns, its regressions and failures, yet never doomed to tragic fate, always with the possibility of repentance and return, always sustained by the vision with which the story began, of the Promised Land…”
Despite this seemingly pessimistic note on which Genesis ends, there is one clue to remind us to be hopeful. This portion is named Va-y’chi, “And [Jacob] lived.” Even when we reflect on his death, we are drawn to reflect on his life. Even as Genesis ends with death, we remember the vitality of the characters we have encountered, inspired by their lives. While one chapter of our people’s story ends, the covenant assures us that it is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.
And so it is my wish and my hope for the new secular year 2017 that we are, despite all the negative experiences in 2016, looking with hope and an open mind into the future. That we continue to see the beauty in this world and the opportunites we have to contribute to a better world.
Shabbat Shalom and “a Happy New Year”
Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Bruce Kadden)