By Dr. Theodore Steinberg
I have always wondered whether a person’s bar or bat mitzvah portion has some special significance for that person’s life. This week’s portion, Vayechi, was my bar mitzvah portion. It describes the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, Jacob’s often unflattering characterizations of his sons, and those sons’ continuing suspicions of Joseph. The haftorah, from the book of Kings, tells of David’s death, before which he urges his son Solomon to kill his political enemies, even though David had earlier seemed to assure their safety. Downer.
For a long time, I consoled myself with the old chestnut that such negative portrayals were really a virtue, because they showed that our heroes were not idealized, make-believe figures. They were not superhuman, as some people mistakenly describe the heroes of Homer or of Greek tragedy. Well, okay, that’s a good point. But still, David does tell Solomon to kill his enemies, which is a bit much.
So what to do? Let us consider the whole scope of Sefer Bereshit, which goes from the beginning of time to the death of Joseph. That’s some range. Who, on reading the first chapter, could have foreseen the last? Surely no mortal, because our capacities are limited. And who could foresee from the end of Vayechi the slavery of Joseph’s descendants? No one. We act and have no idea what effects our actions will have. It’s like being in a game of pool and hitting the cue ball, then having no idea where it will go (which is how I normally play pool). But we cannot abandon the game, so all we can do is the best we can do.
We are, however, not completely without guidelines. We have the Torah and we have Jewish traditions, except that even there we run into ambiguity. “Thou shalt not murder.” Fair enough. But what is murder? Is capital punishment murder? Even reasonable people can disagree. And still, we must act.
Perhaps that is why Rabbi Akiva said that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the central commandment of the Torah. If we could only do that—if we would only even try to do that—think how much better the world would be. We may not be able to resolve the ambiguities or foresee the outcomes of our actions, but even so, we could certainly make the world a better place, if only we really wanted to. And that brings me to the words that we say as we complete each book of the Torah, as we this week complete Sefer Bereshit: Be strong! Be strong! And let us be strengthened.
Dr. Theodore (Ted) Steinberg is a retired professor at SUNY Fredonia who today is a master teacher throughout Jewish Buffalo. Ted also serves on the Jewish Community Relations Council Executive Committee.