Be a Mentsch

There is a nice confluence this year with the end of the Gregorian calendar coinciding with parashat Vayehi, the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis.

As we say goodbye to 2013, we are also turning the page on our weekly Torah reading cycle. The Jewish liturgical cycle has us read the entire Torah in its entirety from beginning to end in order. At the end of each of the five books it is an opportunity to take a breath and note where we are in this spiritual textual journey. The nice confluence is that we are doing this at the same time in our (secular) lives as we note the passage of time and make a resolution or two.

The end of Genesis marks the end of the saga of our spiritual ancestors. The familiar story of Joseph, who, despised by his brothers and sold into slavery, rises to the top of Egyptian society and is then able to save his family, comes to an end. Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of the clan are reunited with Joseph as the family settles in Egypt, setting the stage for the next part of the Torah narrative: slavery and exodus. Our story will shift from a familial narrative to a national narrative. The clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who is renamed Israel after wresting with an angel) give way to am Yisrael, the People of Israel.

The content of this parasha is the death of Jacob. However, before he dies, he blesses the sons of Joseph, and gives a charge to each of his sons. He is giving his last words of counsel, relaying his ethical will and providing closure to his life and setting the course for his descendants, the next generation. It is something that we should all be blessed to have the ability to do, to provide a summary of our thoughts and values at the end of life so that those who come after us will not only receive a bequest of items, but thoughts and values.

The haftarah–the reading from the prophetic books of the Bible which accompanies each week’s Torah reading–echoes this theme. The short passage is drawn from the First Book of Kings and describes King David’s charge to his son Solomon. David is about to die, and so calls in Solomon to both share with him a set of values and also some specific tasks he is to accomplish on David’s behalf.

[If you have spent time in Torah study with me you will know that The Godfather is one of my favorite movies. I like it because it is an epic film that echoes many biblical themes, and is therefore a contemporary reference point for the biblical narrative. If you haven’t seen it, you can skip the next paragraph. Or better yet, skip the next paragraph to go watch it, then come back!

This week’s reading from First Kings reminds me of the scene in which Vito Corleone is talking to his son Michael in the garden. Vito is about to die, though he doesn’t know it (he will die suddenly of a heart attack) but he is stepping away from his leadership of the Mafia organization he developed. This evocative scene is a charge from one generation to the next. Accepting with reluctance Michael’s succession as the head of the crime family, Vito charges Michael with what he is to do next and who he is to take care of. It is, like many scenes from the film, beautiful and poignant.]

David’s charge to Solomon is also beautiful and poignant, and while David also gives a Solomon a list of political enemies who need to be dealt with, what he has to say can be summed in the first three words he shares with Solomon-v‘chazakta v’hayita l’ish-be strong and be a man. But rather than an allusion to some sort of stereotypical masculine norm, David means for Solomon to be a full human being. And how does one do this? Solomon must, David continues, “walk in God’s ways.” A full human being is one who follows the path of the divine, who walks a path of righteousness, of justice, of love and of the good. To do so takes much inner strength.

As we turn the page in the book, as we turn the leaves of the calendar, we too can heed this charge of David. We too are called upon to be strong and to fully realize our human potential. We too are called upon to walk the path of righteousness and the good. Let’s commit ourselves once again to taking the necessary steps to walk this path as we continue our lives’ journey.

This becomes all that more important when we think of our place in our community. The ancient rabbinic commentators reframed this passage from First Kings when they wrote: “in the place where there are no human beings, try to be one.” (Pirke Avot 2:6) We have faced some difficult times in this past month with the tragedy of Newtown, and other times when it was seeming that humanity was lacking. We have the opportunity to address with renewed vigor some of these issues plaguing our society. To do so we must all heed this call from David, from the rabbis:

Be strong and walk with God, especially when the road is empty. This is what it means to become fully human. And if you start walking, others will follow.

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