The Father That Never Died
Tue, 12/10/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Rabba Sara Hurwitz

Candlelighting: Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:11 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.

The results of the recent survey of the Jewish community, conducted by the Pew Research Center, are disheartening. Assimilation is rapidly on the rise; a dark sense of extinction looms. One in five Jews, 22 percent, describe themselves as having no religion; 58 percent are intermarried, as compared to 50 years ago, when just 17 percent of Jews married non-Jewish spouses. Will the American Jewish community survive this seemingly steady march toward doom?

It is this quintessential question of survival that troubles our sages in this weeks Torah portion. In Vayechi, “and [Yaakov] lived,” we learn not only about the death of Jacob, but the death of Joseph, as well. The Torah describes Joseph’s death definitively: “Joseph died at the age of 110 years” [Genesis 50:26]. In contrast, the Torah describes Jacob’s passing somewhat ambiguously: “When Jacob finished imparting his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into himself, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” [Gen. 49:33, JPS translation]. This unusual language inspires a shocking interpretation recorded in the Talmud [Ta’anit 5b]: “Rabbi Yitzchak stated, so said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘Jacob, our father, did not die.’”

On the most human level, some would interpret Rabbi Yitzchak as expressing a deep rooted but natural psychological response to death: denial. Denial is a coping mechanism that protects us from the pain associated with loss, and can in some cases create a distortion of reality. Jacob’s sons, Bnei Yaakov, are watching their beloved father, their rock, take his last breath. Imagining this scene, Rabbi Yitzchak placed words into the mouths of Jacob’s children, of Asher and Gad, Judah and Benjamin: “Jacob our father did not die,” his sons say, because, they could not conceive of a world where their father would no longer exist to guide, teach, and lead them.

But Jacob is not only the progenitor of Bnei Yaakov, the father to twelve sons. He is Bnei Yisrael as well, father to the Jewish nation. And so, in Rabbi Yitzchak’s statement “Jacob, our father, did not die,” I hear an echo not of denial, but of hope, from the Rabbis living in the Amoraic period. As they looked out the windows of their batei midrash, their study halls in the Babylonian diaspora, they asked whether the Jewish nation will be able to survive without the soul of our Patriarch Jacob at its epicenter. Their statement “Jacob our father did not die” was offered as prayer. Jacob’s body was indeed embalmed and buried, as the verses in Genesis go on to recount. But the Rabbis knew that the soul of Jacob would only survive if the Jewish people remain alive.

In the wake of the disconcerting results of the Pew study, I too am looking out the window of my beit midrash, observing and internalizing various reactions and responses. In a way, we are like Jacob’s children surrounding him on his deathbed. We stand on the precipice of imminent danger to the demographic future of Jewish community. Some have already written eulogies in print and in the blogosphere. A requiem for certain neighborhoods or age groups is being recited. Assimilation and annihilation is imminent.

When we read of Jacob’s everlasting life, are we in denial? We glance at the numbers that show significant assimilation, and say, with a bit of incipient shock, that it is impossible to imagine a world without a vibrant and traditional Jewish community. It is impossible to think of America without its Jewish community centers, synagogues and schools. Or, do we declare and pray, with fervent and passionate hope that our father Jacob did not die. Yes, the Jewish community has its flaws. We have a lot of work to do. We must reconsider what it means to be a community that builds bridges to work together, rather than denigrating one another. Our leaders must reimagine how to engage more Jews, young and old, affiliated and unaffiliated and navigate a community where denominational allegiance is fluid. Leaders must listen to the varied and diverse needs of their constituents, and respond.

The truth is, we will survive, but only if our reaction to the Pew study is hope and prayer, not denial. Hope and prayer focus our attention and vault us to creative action. Hope and prayer force us to consider dynamic solutions and make bold decisions. In contrast, denial is self-delusion — a pathological attempt to maintain the status quo. Here, denial will ensure continued atrophy and a decent into demographic oblivion.

The children of Israel have survived religious intolerance, mass destruction, and assimilation in the past. History proves that we will continue to flourish. The richness of our dynamic and evolving tradition will gird us with the strength to live in perpetuity, with the spirit of Jacob, our father, carrying us. Jacob did not die, and neither will we.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is on the rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and is dean of Yeshivat Maharat.

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Great and comforting d’rosh on what had been my Bas Mitzvah parsha. At that time, I’d been well aware that those relatives present would not always be present to us in olom hazeh, and the precious importance of relating to our relations while we were all in the world together.
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"We must reconsider what it means to be a community that builds bridges to work together, rather than denigrating one another" is a great, deep statement. Some of what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said about Jewish people being family, comes to mind: How we’re obnoxious to each other like family, all of that sort of thing. We need to value each other, as family.
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We need less of taking each other for granted, as family; or taking our frustrations out on each other, because it’s safe and where else would they go, as family. Sneering and contempt, while making a "straw-man" of our fellow-Jews (and Jewesses) and shooting verbal and emotional arrows at that "straw-man" -- projecting -- won’t do. It is a cheap way of building community, and it is poisonous to that community.
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Maybe if enough of us encourage more Jewish people to take to heart what Rabbi Hurwitz said here, rather than tolerate hypercriticism bred of discomfort, together we can have an impact.
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A good deal of the material for my own divrei-Torah was informed by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s making available to us in translation the holy Chofetz Chayyim, who taught us the halochos of pure speech, being conscious to not gratuitously say bad where it will serve no useful purpose.
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Three such books are: "Guard Your Tongue: A Practical Guide to the Laws of Loshon Hora," "Growth Through Torah," and "Love Your Neighbor." Keyed to the weekly Torah portion, each Parsha's commentary includes moving anecdotes exemplifying holy behaviors of known ehrlich (frum) rabbis, modeling deeply conscious behaviors we can emulate.
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This is what frum community is supposed to be. Tradition tells us that we are to love our fellow-Jews. You can't m'karev people to community by being hateful, and if Jewish connection is more toxic than what they can find in the greater world, the healthiest will want to go elsewhere.
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It doesn't have to be that way, and we can redouble our efforts to learn what the Masoret, ChaZa"l, and all of our holy teachers encourage us to internalize, and externalize, about improving demonstrating our love for HaShem by increasing our consciously sensitive behaviors with each other. Even when we disagree, and we will, we can do so with the Ahavas Yisroel that is required of us. Am Yisroel Chai!

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