Vayechi: He lived. What was the purpose of his life?

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years. (Genesis 47:28)

The report of the death of Jacob has superficial resonance with that of Sarah in how his age is given, but the wealth of detail around the future he conjures in his deathbed blessings gives us a focus that is missing in the flat account of Sarah’s age and death.

We are told first that he has spent the last seventeen years in Egypt – well past the end of the great famine that brought him there. Bible makes no comment on this fact, but draws our attention to it. Seventeen is a number made up of two significant digits – 7 being the number of the perfected whole, 10 being the number of completeness. It seems as if it is saying that the era is entirely over, it is time for a new thing to happen.

And then we are given the totality of the years of Jacob’s lives – he is 147 years old.

He knows he is soon to die. He makes his preparations, both with Joseph alone and then with his whole family. And so we see the life of Jacob through the prism of his active shaping of the future– through the arrangements for his burial and through the blessings he bestows on each son.

Just as our attention is drawn to his years spent away from his homeland, he draws the attention of his sons – and of we readers of the text – to the land they must also understand to be their homeland.

First he makes Joseph swear that he will not bury his father in Egypt. He is repudiating the adopted land of his son with surprising vehemence – “don’t bury me in Egypt…carry my body out of Egypt and bury me in my ancestral place” (vv29, 30)

Then (48:3) he reminds Joseph that “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me there (with fruitfulness)…and gave this land to my descendants after me for an everlasting possession. He claims the boys -whom he acknowledges were born in Egypt  (48:5) – for himself, giving them the inheritance of the blessing from Luz, the blessing of being attached to the land of Canaan. Then a few verses later (v21) tells Joseph “Behold, I die; but God will be with you, and bring you back to the land of your ancestors.” Then he tells Joseph he will give him an extra portion of the land – Shechem Echad – a puzzling phrase that is variously translated as the city of Shechem, as a topographical feature (a shoulder or mountain ridge), or as simply an extra piece of land – but however one understands this phrase the attention is focussed on the Land of Canaan, the ancestral and promised land.

Jacobs’s total focus on the connection of his descendants to his ancestral land is unmissable. He is powerfully aware of his approaching death, and on the legacy he must ensure is embedded in the next generations of his family. We are no longer quite so fixed on who is to receive the covenantal blessing that Abraham and Sarah ensured went to their son Isaac, and that Rebecca went to such lengths to ensure it went to Jacob himself, deceiving Isaac in the process. Now the covenantal blessing is to go down to each of the sons – so Jacob is thinking further and with more practicality. He wants to pass on land and resources as well as covenant and commitment to God. These are inextricably linked at this point, but his focus is the land and how his descendants will relate to it.

When we think of our own lives, and what we want to pass on to our own descendants, Jacob’s dying activity is instructive. He strips away the unimportant, he faces each person and their reality unflinchingly, he builds on the characteristics of each son, and he gives them responsibility for the land which is both symbolic (the covenantal relationship with God) and real. Treat the land well and you will live in comfort and ease. Treat the land badly and such comfort and ease will not be yours, but instead hunger and rootlessness.

There are many things we want for our descendants. We want them to be ethical human beings. We want them to behave with kindness to others. We want them to live in comfort and ease, not afraid or homeless or having to live a transient anxious existence. We want them to have family of their own –be they families of choice (as Jacob chooses Ephraim and Manasseh) or of relationship. And we want them to live on a land that provides for their needs, that provides food, water and shelter, space to live, landscape to give pleasure – be it the spiritual uplift of mountains or sunsets or the physical enjoyment of walking or swimming in a clean and beautiful environment.

Ours is a generation that has had to learn again to understand the impact on the land of how we choose to live. And we have had to become clearer about our own responsibility for how the land has been abused on our watch. As we distanced ourselves from traditional ways of working the land, found ways to extract resources from the earth in greater amounts, resources we used as if they were limitless, we have created deserts, polluted seas, contaminated soil, tainted air, created huge waste tips and dug enormous pits for landfill – Humankind currently produces two billion tonnes of waste per year between 7.6 billion people. (Figure from sensoneo.com)…..

Slowly – too slowly – we are changing our waste management. Recycling, using less disposable plastics, composting etc. Slowly we are considering our impact on the environment, as people choose to find different ways to travel – or to travel less; as people choose to eat different foods, to plant consciously to enable wildlife habitats. But as we see the Amazonian rainforest disappearing and burning, as we see the Australian bush burning out of control and its wildlife decimated, as we see the effects of climate change in our own back gardens – we know we are too slow to recognise our relationship to the land, our responsibility for its wellbeing, which will impact ultimately on our own wellbeing and that of our descendants.

Jacob speaks to his children, transmitting his ethical will, and we are also forced to ask: what is the legacy and the land that we will pass on to our children and grandchildren? Do we want to pass on a world where the environment no longer supports living diversity? Do we want to hand over a world where natural resources are treated with arrogant disdain and not valued or maintained?

We do not want our children to be forced to migrate because of drought or famine, to be in a world where species are forced into competition for survival; where the air is so toxic that the very breath in their bodies could damage their wellbeing. Jacob’s focus on relationship with the land is a bellwether. We need to be alert to the relationship we have with our world, the impact of our own behaviour and choices. We need to be working so that our own legacy is global sustainability, a world that will be nurtured by our descendants and nurture them in its turn.

 

 

Parashat Bo -the moon waxes and wanes and we learn to count time

The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel occurs in this sidra just before the cataclysmic tenth plague, and the people are finally freed from slavery. Moses is instructed to tell the people “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (12:2) from which the mitzvah of Kiddush haChodesh, the determination of the New Moon, is derived.

Of all the possible choices to be the very first commandment to the new people being formed, the declaration of the new month seems at first glance to be a surprising one. And coming as it does just before the final act that leads to their redemption, the context makes it all the more critical. So why is the very first shaper of the people Israel the requirement to notice the phases of the moon and to declare the new month?

There are, of course, any number of commentaries on this mitzvah. That as the moon does not have light of its own, but reflects the glory of the sunshine, so do Israel reflect the glory of God. That in counting the phases of the moon the people return to the awareness of the God of creation, and as the moon appears to travel with the traveller, so God too travels with us and appears wherever we are. That the moon is sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, like the God we constantly seek. That the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes, remind us that ‘this too will pass’, that our own fortunes come and go, but nothing is forever. That by watching the phases of the moon in order to declare the new month, we are looking up and away from our own situations. That by declaring the new month we are moving away from the Egyptian system whereby the movement of the heavenly bodies is predicated on the actions and the kingship of the Pharaoh. That declaring the new month will be a human initiative, not a divine one….

They are all good glosses as to why this mitzvah is the first given to the people, and timed just before they leave Egypt for an uncertain future, but I think there is another more powerful reason for why this is the first mitzvah for the people to learn to do.

Structuring our time is one of the most powerful ways we take control of our lives. For the Israelites leaving slavery, the idea of structuring their own time must have been both difficult to imagine and frightening to think about actually doing. The bottom line of slavery is that one is not in control of one’s own time, and the parallel bottom line of freedom is that one has to learn to use time in the best way. Having recently changed my work practise after 28 years of being a community rabbi always chasing my tail and trying to catch up with the work, with never enough time to do everything I wanted to do, I find that managing my own time is even harder when there isn’t the pattern imposed externally by ‘work’. So I may continue to write ‘to – do’ lists and doggedly work my way through them but somehow I am still chasing my tail, still trying to catch up on the day’s expected tasks, still frustrated at the amount of things to do in the time available.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (known as Parkinson ’s Law) and this is certainly borne out by experience – both as an individual and as a society. Everyone who has worked in a pressured organisation is aware of the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to look efficient to others by working many more hours than one is contracted to do. Indeed I remember being told by a congregant who worked for one of the big consultancy firms that while normally when buying a suit one would buy one jacket and two pairs of trousers (which show signs of wear more quickly), in his world it was normal to buy one pair of trousers and two jackets, one to be left on the desk chair so that it would look like you were still in the building and working.

Structuring time so as to work with efficiency and still have the opportunity to have a life outside it is one of the hardest things to do – the pressures imposed upon us by our employers or clients or congregants alongside our own needs to look busy and important and necessary mean that we are generally very bad at this skill. And when one works at home or for oneself, or when we are connected through various devices to the rest of the world almost continually, it is even harder to disconnect, to put the boundaries in place and then to keep them.

Looked at in this light, it is very clear that the one thing the people of Israel needed to become aware of is the rhythmic passing of time and that it is we who count and notice and determine the time, not some external power or internal need. Control of time is the paradigm of real freedom and it is hard to do well. But the moon, the gentle moon with its renewal and growth, with its regular phases and reminders during dark times that light will come again, and most of all with its nightly appearance that gives us hope, that helps us to keep count of the passing of time, that means we look up an out of ourselves when we might be tempted only to keep our eyes focussed on the task to be completed – the moon is the most wonderful object to follow and to see. And add to that the requirement upon us to pay attention to its monthly cycle, to requirement to make of each new moon a moment to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves, to sanctify the time we are living in – this is so obviously the most powerful commandment to give to a people embarking on freedom who will find the structuring and controlling of their time the most difficult thing to do, and possibly even a terrible burden. As we see the time pass in this most powerful and beautiful changing image in the sky each night, we can both be aware of what is not done and be refreshed and renewed to work differently in the coming days, both mark the passage of time and join its flow. The word ‘Bo’ is the command to both ‘come’ and to ‘go’. The moon is its visual representation as it comes and goes each month. And we too are able to leave behind and travel towards as we learn to use our time to best advantage.