Parshat Vayechi by Ari Hart
A few months ago I had the honor of speaking with Reverend Tex Sample, a Christian leader in civil rights and social justice causes for over 40 years. We talked Tanach, and I can’t forget Tex’s shock when I told him that Yaakov, the character at the center of so much intrigue, deception, and double-crossing is, in our rabbinic tradition, associated with emet, truth.
I reflect on that conversation often: why are we, Am Yisrael or Beit Yaakov, named after such a complicated character? Why were we not Beit Avraham, or Am Yitzchak – two characters with cleaner stories? Can we fulfill our mandate to bring tzedek and mishpat to the world if Yaakov/Yisrael is our spiritual namesake?
In this week’s parasha, Yaakov confronts his own legacy. At the end of a long, compliacted life, Yaakov offers a blessing to Yosef. It begins as follows (Genesis 48:15)
“And he blessed Yosef saying: The God that my forefathers walked in front of, the God that has shepherded my life to this day…”
The Mei HaShiloach notes the deep humility and self-doubt expressed Yaakov expresses, and makes a powerful observation: “While Avraham and Yitzchak knew how to walk in front of God, confidently leading and blazing their own paths in the world, I was a sheep, straying this way and that,” says Yaakov. This is what makes Yaakov the greatest of the patriarchs. He writes that the greatest Jewish leaders are those who seek God’s guidance at every turn, in relationship with a God who gives support and direction even while the flock is astray.
The Mei HaShiloach’s reading also offers insight into the sacred work of healing the world. There are many Avrahams and Yitzchaks – individuals who are 100% on mission, certain how to fix the world’s problems, heeding their own calls no mater what anyone else says. They often do amazing work, but their one size fits all approach can be lacking. When activism is only around issues of class, or exclusively focussed on race, or totally determined by gender, it is limited. Being so sure of one’s particular solution can lead to a competitive attitude or dismissal of other worthwhile approaches to pursuing justice. This approach also makes it difficult to confront and address the shortcomings of one’s own work.
That is why the Avrahams and Yitzchaks, though they are powerful and great, do not get to be called men of truth. To say that the world can be healed through pure chesed (love), Avraham’s attribute, or corrected through pure gevurah (judgement), Yitzchak’s is not really true. To be a Yaakov, to to seek guidance and counsel at every turn, to confront one’s failures and make change is rare and unique. It is what makes Yaakov and the Jewish people so powerful. May we merit to reach the heights of Yaakov’s truth and use it to see and create a world worthy of God’s presence. Shabbat Shalom.