Shabbat Va-yiggash – Rabbi Miriam Berger

Sermon – 15th December 2018

It’s a line in so many eulogies. It’s a fleeting remark. During the war she was evacuated to…fill in the gap. Mention leafy provincial rural town. We don’t hear much more of the story than that. But have you ever asked yourself why? I hadn’t either. Until I sat this week with a member of the community who is terminally ill. She’s obviously, over the last few weeks, had lots of time to reflect on her life and as we were talking she said something which really resonated. People talk but rarely do they ask the right questions to truly enable a deeper understanding of the person they are talking to. She explained it took her son in law’s mother in Ireland to ask a question no one in all the years had ever thought to ask. You see, she would use the phrase like so many of her contemporaries, “oh yes as a child I was evacuated to…” but only this one person ever asked, “Were they kind to you?” We ask questions that acquire facts how old were you, where did you go to, how long were you away from your family…but there’s a generational story that isn’t told beyond the facts and that is the question of what was the childhood experience of so many of our now 80 something year olds: how did it change them, define them, make them the adults they became? Were they kind to you?

I wonder if it’s even more acute among that generation within the Jewish community because there is the fear of being accused of comparing their experience with that of their contemporaries from Eastern Europe. Maybe there’s a the Kindertransport and completely new foreign beginnings or worse still the horrors of being in hiding or in concentration camps, so instead they remain silent. Leave that chapter in a box unspoken about or simply report as fact without the emotion of a child, sent away from all that was familiar to a household where simple probability would argue the answer to the question – were they kind to you? – is unlikely to be positive 100% of the time.

There is an interaction in this week’s Torah reading that fascinates me and is often overlooked because it didn’t make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cut of the Joseph narrative.   Just after the section Aaron read for us we find Jacob is elderly, but has just heard that the son he has spent years mourning is actually not just alive but a successful Egyptian civil servant.  He has spent years coping with the famine in Canaan and has just been brought to Egypt where food is plentiful in Pharaoh’s court.  He has been reunited with his son and is being introduced to the most powerful man on earth – as far as he knows it and Pharaoh, making conversation asks…

ח   כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. 8 ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’  or more simply – How old are you?
ט  וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם. 9 And Jacob replies to Pharaoh: ‘The years of my sojourn on earth are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers.’


Biblical commentator Robert Alter remarks, “One would not expect Jacob to sound so bitter about his life.  He has been reunited with his beloved son, whom he thought was dead, and has been promised a life of ease in Egypt.  Jacob’s life has been described as a “story with a happy ending that withholds any simple feeling of happiness at the end…Although he gets everything he wanted, it is not in the way he would have wanted.  Everything has been a struggle.”

If only this Jacob could talk to the birth-rite stealing Jacob? The one who saw the ends as justifying the means?  If only the elderly Jacob could speak to the mother of his childhood and explain it isn’t about all I achieve if the way I’ve achieved it leaves me feeling empty? If only he could understand that even a happy ending when built on such broken foundations doesn’t feel like a victory it just feels like survival? The brokenness of relationships, the failings of parenthood, the struggles to succeed supersede the emotions of the ultimate measures of success.

When people come to the end of their lives as Pharaoh was giving Jacob the chance to, we use length of years as a measure of success, 130 years old and still going strong is surely a blessing for Jacob, surely a pointer toward fortitude. Twelve sons at least one daughter, probably more grandchildren and great grandchildren than has ever been used in a post biblical battle of the “who has more to shep naches over” stakes and yet as Alter reminds us it’s a happy ending with no measure of happiness. Because when Jacob evaluates his life the shadow of the pain he suffered and the pain he caused casts a shadow over all those blessings. Sometimes it’s enough to have survived the challenges; sometimes it’s enough to have kept going despite the heart ache. Sometimes it’s enough to say I’m still here to tell the tale even though you know only the rarest of people will ask the questions that allow you to share not just what you experienced but how you experienced it and only they will understand the success is in keeping going not in any of the other trappings that might look like the ultimate in blessings.

Let’s not leave it until we are 130 to look back and ask ourselves whether the journey justified the appearance of the destination.  Let us think about the questions we ask.  What emotions underlie the facts that we are being told?  What stories do we hear with a simple statement of fact and what question would allow people to explain what that truly means.  Two weeks ago we marked the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, last week the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Human rights. This week we need to remember not to mark historical events by the moment but by their on-going impact and to create community spaces where people can share their stories, be heard and understand the phrases which will live on in our eulogies; “his mother was a Holocaust survivor”, “her father arrived in this country with only the belongings he could carry and no English”, “she was evacuated during the war to…”, “he died at 92 years old leaving children, grandchildren and great grandchildren”, none of these statements actually tell the story without the parallel truths as would “haunted by the fear of,” “and never forgot the kindness of”, “never allowed himself to stop working towards building”, “all those generations continued to experience her…”

What moments of healing would Jacob have needed with his brother Esau, his uncle Laban, what conversations would he needed to have had with his sons to have ensured this was simply a story with a happy ending.  Alternatively what understanding do we need to have of our loved ones that understands some experiences in life mean all the gold and silver of Egypt could never compensate for the struggles endured, that brokenness will always be part of any simple feeling of happiness at the end but that’s the opportunity to celebrate our own resilience our own ability to keep surviving.

May we always give people the space to be heard so that their experiences become a teaching in our lives too, so that which remains broken in one generation is passed on as opportunities to learn and heal in the next.  May we learn to ask the right questions, so we learn from experiences and not to report simply the facts.

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