By Rabbi Corey Helfand
This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 – 50:26.
Each December, as the secular year winds down, I yearn to look back and say that it was a great year. Year after year, I find that affirmation to be more and more difficult. This year, what many thought would be the dawn of a decade of possibility, turned into one of the hardest of a lifetime.
While certainly more optimistic than 2020, with return to in-person school and vaccine rollout for adults and most of our children, 2021 wasn’t without its challenges and sorrows: the insurrection at the Capitol, catastrophic natural disasters the result of our ever-changing climate, the highest inflation rate in decades and, of course, living in the COVID era, including mourning the loss of millions.
Is there a blessing for us after yet another chaotic and difficult year?
Parashat Vayechi, the final reading of Bereshit (Genesis), offers us a vision of hope. It would have been easy for our ancestor Jacob, while on his deathbed, to curse his children and admit defeat. After what Jacob endured — living a life of trickery and deceit, having his own children stage the death of his son Joseph and engage in ruthless, zealous behavior — what confidence does Jacob have that things will get better? Even Jacob’s sons have little room for hope, fearing their brother Joseph will capitalize on his power and avenge his brothers for selling him into slavery.
Yet, both Jacob and Joseph offer words of wisdom and hope. Jacob recites the words “I hope for your deliverance, O God” (Genesis 49:18, either a blessing for one of his children or for Jacob himself).
Similarly, following Jacob’s death, the brothers fear for their lives before Joseph, and Joseph responds, “Fear not, I will sustain you and your children” (Genesis 50:21).
Both Jacob and Joseph respond with words of strength, of comfort and support, and of hope that the path ahead can be one of promise if we support one another and maintain our faith in God.
A midrash, a rabbinic teaching, in Bereshit Rabbah, says, “Everything is bound up with hoping. Suffering is bound up with hoping, the sanctification of God’s name with hoping, the merit of our ancestors with hope, and the desire for the World to Come with hope. Grace comes through hope, and forgiveness comes through hope.”
Or as my teacher Rabbi Brad Artson suggests, “We Jews are no strangers to disappointment and to tragedy…Yet, we Jews know that the prime commandment is never to despair. So often in our past, when our trials seemed endless and our pain unbearable, we have witnessed the miracle of hope, the resilience of our sacred purpose” (Artson, Bedside Torah, Vayechi).
As we leave the story of our ancestors and wade into the darkness of slavery in Egypt, we are left with a twinkle of hope that we will be redeemed from bondage and will experience freedom. There will undoubtedly be conflict and unrest in the future, be it in reading and studying our biblical narrative or whatever lies ahead come 2022. Yet, the reconciliation and blessings at the end of the book of Bereshit offer a glimmer of possibility that next year can be better if we commit to making it so, working harder to fight for justice, reconciliation, equality and love for our world.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is rabbi of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.