Friday, December 14, 2018

Parashat VaYigash: Transitions

Thoughts on VaYigash 2018
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Yaakov was caught off guard in the moments after hearing that Yosef was alive and well in Egypt – “And his heart stopped, for he did not believe them” (Bereshit 45:26). Once the news sunk in, however, Yaakov exclaimed: “Enough! Yosef my son is still alive. Let me go see him before I die” (28). For twenty-two years he had yearned for one last sight of his beloved son and that time had finally come.

Before entering Egypt, Yaakov stopped at Be’er Sheva, where God appeared to him “through visions of the night” (46:1). God initially told him: “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for a great nation I will make you there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt and I myself will surely bring you back up as well” (3-4). The encounter came at a critical moment in Yaakov’s life. It represented a period of transition for his family, as they left Canaan, the land of Avraham and Yisshak, on their way to exile. God, then, was placating Yaakov’s fears by promising His protection.

Beyond God’s promises of protection, however, Yaakov’s nighttime visions shifted his general perspective. Indeed, his vision of God at that time was similar to our own nighttime visions. As Marina Benjamin remarked, the significance of our thoughts as we lay awake in bed at night lies not in what we see, but how we see it: “It is about paying attention to what lies at the peripheries of our being, or just across the border.”[1] God’s concluding words to Yaakov changed everything: “And Yosef shall lay his hand on your eyes.” Whereas Yaakov’s excitement about meeting Yosef had previously coupled with his anticipation of things to come, God now informed him that that things would be different. While he would get to see Yosef, there would be no future journey together. Instead, Yosef would “lay his hand” on Yaakov’s eyes. Yaakov’s sight would diminish in place of Yosef’s.

R. Ezra Bick highlighted this transitional time in Yaakov’s life by pointing to the textual discrepancies in presenting his name. Whereas Yisrael travelled to Be’er Sheva – “And Yisrael journeyed onward” (1), Yaakov left for Egypt – “And Yaakov arose from Be’er Sheva” (5). R. Bick suggested that Yisrael represented his role in actively forging Am Yisrael’s future, while Yaakov denoted his state of passivity and dependence. Indeed, although he was already an old man, his travel to Be’er Sheva appeared unassisted, “And Yisrael journeyed onward,” while his departure was led by his children, “And the sons of Yisrael conveyed Yaakov their father…on the wagons Pharaoh had sent to convey him” (5).[2] Yaakov’s brief encounter with God at Be’er Sheva transformed his vision of self and reoriented his understanding of the future.

When Yaakov finally met with Yosef, he eerily repeated his earlier expression, although it was now laden with a literal meaning: “I may die now, after seeing your face, for you are still alive” (46:30). Crossing through the liminal realm of a nighttime vision at Be’er Sheva had changed Yaakov. Entering with the hope that his sight of Yosef would forbear a bright future together, Yaakov left Be’er Sheva with the understanding that it would instead represent his passing of the torch from father to son.

Regarding his great disdain of sleep, the poet Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me.”[3] Although I personally share Nabokov’s hate of the lost opportunities inherent in sleep, I can nonetheless appreciate the advantages that sleep and dreams afford us. Matthew Walker, for example, likened REM sleep to a master piano tuner, as it “readjusts the brain’s emotional instrumentation at night to pitch-perfect precision.”[4]  Alice Robb likewise wrote: “Dreams can help us become more self-aware; they draw deep-seated anxieties to the surface, forcing us to face up to hope and fears we haven’t acknowledged.”[5] Our sleep and dreams, then, play similar roles to Yaakov’s nighttime vision of God. They sharpen our self-understanding and prepare us for the difficult journey ahead.

Navigating the various stages of our lives without preparation will lead us to sure failure. Yaakov’s nighttime encounter with God conditioned him for the alternate reality that lay ahead. Deep sleep through the night can sometimes do the same for us. But several minutes of mindful recollection can also do the trick. Every parent knows that the few-minute warning before transitioning our children into the next activity are crucial. The same holds true for adults with regards to the many phases of life.

As Arthur Rubinstein reflected upon his career as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, he reportedly remarked: “I play the notes no better than many, but the pauses…ah, that makes all the difference.”[6]

Taking time out of our days on a consistent basis to momentarily pause our stream of thought and activities and take stock of our current state-of-being and the anticipated future is vital to our continued growth. It will provide us with the appropriate mindset for travelling along the uncharted roads of life and serve as our critical “visions of the night.”

[1] Marina Benjamin, Insomnia (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 104-5.
[2] R. Ezra Bick, “The Twilight Years,” in Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach: Bereshit (New Milford, CT, 2011), pg. 487-8.
[3] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York, NY, 1989), pg. 108-9.
[4] Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 215.
[5] Alice Robb, Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey (New York, NY, 2018), pg. 8.
[6] Related by Janice Marturano, in Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 58.