With this week’s parashah, Vayechi, we close out the Book of Genesis, which has taken us from the Creation of the universe to the consolidation of one family, the household of Jacob. This is a story of movement. God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, his earliest home, to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). He traveled to Egypt and back to Eretz Yisrael. Abraham’s grandson Jacob traveled to Egypt with his entire family to reunite with his son, Joseph. Now, at the very end of Genesis the family travels to Eretz Yisrael to bury Jacob but returns to reside in Egypt. Why do they return? Why do they not remain in the land of their ancestors, the land God promised them?
One answer is that the end of Genesis lays the groundwork, and indeed foreshadows, the Book of Exodus. Exodus tells the foundational story of the Jewish nation, from its beginnings in slavery, through redemption at the Reed Sea and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, out into the Wilderness. Clearly, Exodus, too, is about movement. Curiously, Genesis moves the family of Abraham under the patriarch Jacob from Eretz Yisrael to Egypt, but Exodus brings them up out of Egypt yet not back to Eretz Yisrael. And in that incongruity lies a second answer: Torah hints that we are always traveling to Eretz Yisrael, always dreaming of the ideal which is just beyond reach. We have never entirely “arrived.” The third answer is the Torah teaches us that control is an illusion. Our lives are built on the premise that with forethought, decisions, and determination, we can steer our lives in the direction we want.
The reality of life is that we have far less control than any of us could emotionally cope with, and the truth of that is something we can tolerate only in small and occasional doses. Harvard professor of psychology Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “Perhaps the strangest thing about this illusion of control is not that it happens but that it seems to confer many of the psychological benefits of genuine control. In fact, the one group of people who seem generally immune to this illusion are the clinically depressed, who tend to estimate accurately the degree to which they can control events in most situation.” Why do we want control? Gilbert answers that question succinctly: it feels good. Yet Genesis and Exodus tell us the truth: we have less control over life than we think, and far less than we would like.
Perhaps it would be best to live in the land of illusion and believe that we are the captains of our life ships? John Stuart Mill wrote: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”
In Jewish terms, the ideal we seek is the ultimate Eretz Yisrael: the messianic age. The Rabbis had much to say on this topic. In a peculiar passage in the Babylonian Talmud, we find the ideas of the messianic age and control (or lack of it) intertwined:
Once, Yehudah andChezkiah, the sons of R. Chiyya, were sitting at the [dining] table with Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi, the teacher of R. Chiyya] and said not a word. [Rabbi] said: “Give the young men plenty of strong wine, so that they will speak.” When they became tipsy, they began by saying: “The son of David [i.e., the messiah] cannot come until the two ruling houses in Israel shall have come to an end [i.e., the Exilarch in Babylon and the Patriarchate in Eretz Yisrael, of which R. Yehudah ha-Nasi is the head], for it is written, And he shall be for a Sanctuary, for a tripping stone and a stumbling rock for the two houses of Israel (Isaiah 8:14).” Thereupon [Rabbi] said to them: “My children, you throw thorns in my eyes!” R. Chiyya said: “Master, let it not be bad in your eyes [i.e., do not be angry], for the numerical value of ‘wine’ is seventy, and also the numerical value of ‘secret’ is seventy: When wine goes in, secrets come out.” (BT Sanhedrin 38a)
Ostensibly, this is a story that demonstrates what happens under the influence of alcohol: inhibitions are lowered and people say things they would not normally say. The sons of R. Chiyya know enough to keep their mouths shut—until wine enters them and loosens their tongues. What they say to R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, in essence, is: The messiah will not come until your family’s monopoly on authority in the Jewish community crumbles. On another level, the story provides a window onto the politics of the Jewish community in the late second century, and the perspective on it from the distant Babylonian vantage point some time later. Rabbi Yaakov ben Joseph Reischer (1661-1733, Austria) explains that Rabbi is upset because the sons of R. Chiyya marshal Isaiah 8:14 to prove their point, thereby insulting the ruling households of both Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael; rather, they might have quoted a verse from this week’s parashah that affirms the firm hold on power of these two ruling households until the messiah arrives:
לֹא-יָסוּר שֵׁבֶט מִיהוּדָה, וּמְחֹקֵק מִבֵּין רַגְלָיו, עַד כִּי-יָבֹא שִׁילֹה, וְלוֹ יִקְּהַת עַמִּים
The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his legs, until he comes to Shiloh, and the people’s fealty is his. (Genesis 49:10)
But on yet another level, the Rabbis understand the conundrum of thinking that happiness is always in the future, that when the messiah comes, happiness and control (in this case, communal) will come in its wake. The present is perceived as an aberrant time of loss and despair because the Jews do not have control of their land. Expectations and desires are not met. Happiness is not yet accessible. Gilbert writes: “We all have direct experience with things that do or don't make us happy, we all have friends, therapists, cabdrivers, and talk-show hosts who tell us about things that will or won't make us happy, and yet, despite all this practice and all this coaching, our search for happiness often culminates in a stinky mess. We expect the next car, the next house, or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn't and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t.”
In another, and deeply insightful story about the messiah, the Rabbis teach us not to ignore the present—what is already with us.
R. Yehoshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Shimon b. Yochai's tomb. He asked him: “Have I a portion in the world to come?” [Elijah] replied, “If this Master desires it.” R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.” He then asked [Elijah], “When will the Messiah come?” “Go and ask him himself,” [Elijah] replied. “Where is he to be found?” “At the entrance to the gates of Rome.” “And by what sign may I recognize him?” “He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [their bandages] all at once, and then re-bandage them together, whereas he unties and re-bandages each [sore] separately [before treating the next] thinking, should I be wanted, I must not be delayed.” So [R. Yehoshua b. Levi] went to him and greeted him, saying, “Peace be upon you, Master and Teacher.” “Peace be upon you, O son of Levi,” he replied. “When will you come, Master?” he asked. [The messiah] said to him: “Today.” Upon [R. Yehoshua b. Levi’s] return to Elijah, the latter enquired, “What did he say to you?” “Peace be upon you, O son of Levi,” [R. Yehoshua b. Levi] said. Thereupon [Elijah] said, “He thereby assured you and your father of [a portion in] the world-to-come.” “He spoke falsely to me,” he said, “saying that he would come today. But he has not come.” [Elijah] answered him, “This is what he said to you: Today, if you will hear his voice (Psalm 95:7).”
Wherever we travel in life, we can look backwards nostalgically. Some of that is good and grounding but too much conveys the message that nothing will ever be good enough. We can look forward longingly, imagining that the good times are yet to come, always just around the bend. That thinking suggests we’ll never achieve either satisfaction or happiness. The third alternative is to live in the present, appreciating the power of the past and the potential of the future (because there is always more we can contribute to the world), because happiness and satisfaction are always and only experienced in the present, but without the expectation of being in full control. What sweetness and blessing is in your life today?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman