On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayechi: 8 Lessons for Today's World in the Book of Genesis

Parashat Vayechi is the last portion in the book of Genesis, so Rabbi Rick Jacobs takes this opportunity to discuss some of the larger themes from this first book of the Torah that resonate with us today: the defining story of “audacious hospitality”; the challenges of engaging the next generation in Jewish life; the opportunities to encounter holiness that can happen at any moment in our lives; the inherently Jewish value of social justice; our deep connection to the land of Israel; and much more.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Vayechi. And he wonders, what do the stories you love teach you most?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayechi, the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis, and it gives us an opportunity today on the podcast to, kind of, look through the book and to get a sense of, you know, kind of, what are some of the big takeaways? There's so much in the Book of Genesis -- B'reishit, in Hebrew. So, I'm going to give eight takeaways. There could be thousands, come on, you know that. But I'm going to give eight that to me really stand out. So here we go.

First, the opening words we learned -- B'reishit bara Elohim -- in the beginning, God didn't create a Jewish person. God didn't create a synagogue. God created a universe. That's the nature of the platform here. It's a really big broad canvas. God is not the God of my synagogue, the God of my family, or the God of my people. God's the God of the everything, and that comes across so powerfully. And we only later in the flow of the Creation story do we get to human beings, do we get to know the specificity and the particularity of Jewish life. But it's so powerful to remember this is not a, you know, kind of a familial narrative. This is a narrative about the purpose of the universe and God's role in the center.

Number two: God and Genesis are all about practicing audacious hospitality. "Woah, woah, woah, wait a minute, Rabbi Jacobs, come on. Are you saying that audacious hospitality is a Biblical phrase from the Book of Genesis?" No, I can't say that, because it's simply not true. But the notion of welcoming others -- hospitality -- in not only the Book of Genesis, but in our rabbinic literature is an expression of the Holy. That's how we begin, very often, to come into contact with the Holy One. The story in Genesis is the defining story of hospitality, and particularly the audacious kind -- not just the regular kind of being polite. And of course, it's the moment when Abraham is recovering from surgery. He and Sarah [are] in their tent, it's hot, but he runs after potential guests and brings them in in an act of love, in an act of sharing all that he has, in an act of also wanting to encounter the other.

I always loved -- there was one among my favorite synagogue visits stories, and I get to visit a lot of synagogues, I love this job. So, I'm showing up a little bit early to a synagogue somewhere, and I couldn't find the right door to go inside. So, I think I finally found the door, I go in, and I'm moving around, and a woman sees me, and she says, "What do you want?" I said, "Well, I want to be in a synagogue that's loving and welcoming and warm." And you kind of looked at me like, well, I don't know about that. And then she looked at this easel which had a picture of a guy [that] looked a lot like me. And all of a sudden, she looked at the easel, looked at me, and she said, "Are you...?" I said, "Yeah." She goes, "Oh, why didn't you say so!" And all I could say is, "I don't think that's audacious hospitality. That is, 'Oh you're the guy coming to speak. I'm going to be nice to you.'" It only works when you think you are encountering a homeless desert wanderer with nothing to give you other than this moment of human contact. We learn about audacious hospitality in the Book of Genesis.

Number three: Genesis teaches us that it was never simple to engage the next generation of Jews. I think today we are so caught up thinking, "boy it's really challenging, how do we keep teens engaged, and college students, and young adults -- I mean, I bet in Jewish history it wasn't so challenging!" Not so fast, not so fast! Look at the Book of Genesis. Every generation they're worried. Would there be a next generation? Would the kids identify with and carry on the brit, the covenant? Just wherever you want to start -- you want to start with Ishmael and Isaac? Do you want to go then to Jacob and Esau? Do you want -- obviously, Joseph and his brothers. There is a built-in undercurrent that nothing automatic happens from generation to generation. It's a very intentional and a very, very, kind of, artful process. So, for all of us who are busy with the next generation, or maybe we're remembering how our parents and grandparents engaged with us, there is a teaching in Genesis that we have got to be very, very smart and creative. Making sure the generation, [the] next generation doesn't just follow in our footsteps, but actually is able to take hold and to shape Judaism as it ought to be in their moment, in their lives.

Four: Genesis teaches that all human encounters can reveal holiness. I love this one, maybe the best of all. Genesis, I guess, reminds us there's not a sign that says, "hey, holy moment about to happen! [Or,] ooh, this is a holy place!" Every single moment, every single place is potentially an encounter with the Most High. Whether it's Rebecca answering Eliezer's prayer at the well, whether it's that mysterious eesh, that person who encounters Joseph when he's looking for his brothers, or the best and the most powerful one is Jacob, when he's escaping from his brother, Esau, and he's out on the run. He doesn't know where is, he thinks he's in a godforsaken place. He lays down, and actually it's the holiest place. That's where his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. And he wakes up changed. Encounters with holiness are potential anywhere, any time. What a great Genesis teaching that we ought to also bring into our world.

Five: Genesis teaches that in our current terminology, social justice is not a politically partisan concept. Rather, it's embedded in God's demands and obligations for each of us. There is all kinds of discussions today about, you know, is it a Torah value, is it a political platform? And I just love the great phrase that Abraham challenges God. When God is having negotiation with Abraham about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham says to God the following: "Ha'shofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'ase misphat?" Abraham says to God, "Is the judge of all the earth not going to do justly?" Justice is what we're all held accountable for -- including the Holy One. The justice of God's actions. It tells us in Genesis that we're actually partners with God. We're trying to shape a just and compassionate world. We're not just taking up space and getting through years. We have a deeper purpose. Genesis puts that right in the heart.

Number six: You keeping count wherever you are, in your car, [or] you're washing the dishes, I got six, do you got six too? All right. Here we go: six. Genesis describes a Jewish landscape that doesn't have any Jewish institutions. There are no JCCs, no synagogues, and no seminaries, there are no federations. There are no Jewish boards or family and children's services. And you could say, well, that's because that all comes later. And that's true, but I think Genesis is trying to distill religiosity into its elemental forms. And sometimes, we get lost in the bureaucracy of Jewish life. We've got all these institutions, we've got hierarchies, we've got boards of trustees, and all of those things. By the way, those things are important, they help keep Jewish life alive, but they sometimes keep us from being clear about God, religious obligations, and holy opportunities. So, I love that Genesis takes us right back to the elements.

Number seven: Genesis teaches that no matter where we live, we are bound to the land of Israel. Our ancestors in Genesis, they start, you know, in Ur Kasdim, they start way outside the land. Abraham and Sarah, they journey to the land, famine [then] makes them move out of the land. But there is a deep, deep connection that is forged, and it is a connection that endures to this day, whether you live in, you know, some other part of the world or you live in the land of Israel. We, as a Jewish people, are tied to that particular place.

And number eight, for those who are counting, the last one is: Genesis reminds us over and over again that we're not home...yet. There is an unsettled-ness, that we're nomads. We're journeying. It doesn't mean we're homeless and we're lost never at ease. What it means is we're impatient, and we're yearning to go and to grow and to be and to shape a world, to shape this creation that God has asked us to be partners [in]. And I love that there's that quality that no matter where we live, that's our work. And even if we think we're at home, which we are until the world is the world that God envisioned, we're not all at home. We don't all have that sense of being rooted. So Genesis keeps us, I think, on our edge, keeps us moving, yearning, thinking, reimagining, and in that sense it's an unbelievably powerful book, inspiring book.

I can't wait to go back through the cycle and see you next year in the Book of Genesis. But when we finish a book of study, whether it's a book of the Torah or a book of Mishnah or other sacred texts we say "chazak chzak v'nit'chazek." Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened by our study, by our engagement, by our debates, by our wrestling, and by our internalizing of these amazing and powerful and transformative teachings. So as we conclude, we say those words and we get ready to begin the book of Exodus next week. Chazak chazak v'nit'chazek.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!