I love you, gentlest of Ways,
Who ripened us as we wrestled with you.
Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God 1:25
The sun was about to set. You know that time of day when the shadows shift and morph the way you see the world and the sun causes a slanted band to illuminate a wall? It was that moment that Jacob came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night (Gen 28:11). Perhaps this place was the mountaintop where his grandfather brought his father to offer him as a sacrifice (Rashi). Or perhaps it was an unintentional place, an arbitrary spot along the way, or a place for travelers to rest (Sforno). Or perhaps makom, the word for place and the word for God, was the intersection between the wandering spirit of Jacob and the presence of God. But regardless of the coordinates, Jacob rested in a place of prayer as the sun began to set (Rashi). And he lay his head upon a stone, the stone of wandering, of wondering, of contemplation, of exhaustion. And he prayed and the angels came to him. And his heart opened and, in this place, this moment of shadows and light, was the presence of God (Gen 28:16).
And then sometime later, in a different phase, at a different time, Jacob found himself by river Jabbok. This was not a place of rest but a place of resistance and struggle. But again, the angels came to visit. He wrestled with the unknown forces until the dawn began to break. You know the time of day, when the darkness of the night turns into a greyish hue and color and light dances upon the windowsill. And you twist and stretch and struggle to meet the dawning of a new day, leaving the heaviness of the night behind. I believe in the night.
I await those rare times
when my heart spills its weight
like the Big Dipper into darkness.
This is faith.
What is seen is velvet black
and quiet and still,
and yes. And then, for a moment,
until the dawn impatiently
shakes off the silence,
the night reveals its secrets.
Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice Rabbi Karyn Kedar, (CCAR Press)
And Jacob's heart opened and, in this place, this moment of light and shadow was the presence of God (Gen 32:23-32).
And God, as the sun began to set or when the sun began to rise speaks to Jacob and says, I will protect you (28:15). I will be gracious unto you (Gen 32:10). And Jacob answers, I am unworthy of your kindness (Gen 32:11). And the grandeur of God, the eternal and holy and ineffable Presence makes him feel small and humble, and he is filled with loving kindness. And truth.
And then in our Parashah Vayechi, it was sometime later, in a different phase, at a different time and Jacob entered into the twilight of his life. You know the time, when shadow and light commingle. The eyes dim and the light within becomes ever so bright with perspective, understanding and blessing. And he asked his son Joseph for grace, and loyalty and truth and he made him promise that his final resting place would be the land of his fathers, the land of abundant blessing (Gen 47:29) (Ibn Ezra).
He asked to sleep an eternal rest, no new revelation, no more struggle, but at home with his ancestors. And Israel bowed to the head of his bed (Gen 47:31). He turned toward the Shechinah, the powerful yet intimate presence of God. For it is this Presence that hovers above the pillow of the dying (Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi). And he lay upon his bed, not here, not there. We call the moment in-between go-ses. In its simplicity it means dying. But for those of us who have sat by the bed of a person as the light dims, the time between breaths grows long, the body becomes small upon the bed. We who have witnessed the moment of transition know.
We feel the soul lift slightly, then return, lift, and return, as if the Shechinah is a Magnetic Presence slowly drawing the life force into Herself, into all that is eternal. That is why we pray every night the Hashkiveinu: God when I lay down may it be for peace and may I awake to life everlasting. Banish all fear, all evil, all pain. I long to hide in the shadow of your wings. May I feel Your love hovering like canopy of peace. Protect my soul as it takes flight, as it returns to your loving Presence. (based on Hashkiveinu in the evening liturgy)
And so ends the life of our father Jacob. According to the Zohar, he becomes the archetype of beauty and splendor, integrating compassion and strength, balancing justice and mercy. For he has traveled a long path, a path of light and of darkness, a hero's path drifting between moments of defeat and despair, revelation and struggle.
He offers his final blessings to his each of sons and to 2 of Joseph's sons, sometimes gentle sometimes harsh. He spares them nothing I will give truth to Jacob and kindness to Abraham (Micah 7:20). When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. Joseph flung himself upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him (50:1). And so Joseph went up to bury his father (Gen 50:7).
And then sometime later, in a different phase, it was Joseph's time. He lay in that place between life and life everlasting. Upon his death bed there was great healing, words of forgiveness and reconciliation between him and his brothers (50:17-21). Joseph made the sons of Israel make a vow: "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here." Joseph died at the age of 110 and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt (50:25-26).
And so ends the book of Genesis - a story that becomes our legacy. For we all travel a path through light and darkness, struggling with the angels to capture moments when heaven and earth meet. We are all Jacob, we are all Joseph, trying to live in the truth and splendor of who we are. Yearning to forgive, to be forgiven. To come to our final moments with the sense of having lived with purpose.
And we say as we conclude this book chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik. May we be strong along the path, strong in our struggle for meaning, and may we give strength to one another.