Vayechi 5781 – Flush 2020?
The billboard on Highway 100 south near the JCC reads #flush2020. It’s an ad for plumbing company. The desire to flush 2020 down the drain is widespread and quite understandable, but every time I pass that billboard, it triggers a sequence of conflicting thoughts that remain unresolved. It goes something like this:
#flush2020? Absolutely! Can’t wait.
But what awful ingratitude! How many people did not receive the gift of living through 2020?! Is this sign actually directing me to consider 365-precious days as flushworthy filth? How grossly un-Jewish!
Then again, is every year truly a blessing? Who would dare speak of the blessings of תרצ"ח – תש"ה (1938 - 1945) even if there were blessed moments during that time of evil? And what of citations in rabbinic texts that tread carefully around years like 1510, 1515, 1910, 1915 (,רע"ה ,ר"ע ,תר"ע תרע"ה) and other years with ominous numeric designations? Texts referencing these years often scramble the letters to avoid the standard nomenclature, תרה"ע instead of תרע"ה, for example.
Perhaps some years are better off flushed?
I have yet to resolve this internal machloket, partly because my thoughts turn to the upcoming highway exit and partly because it is impossible to fathom how Hashem conducts these matters. Can a year be said to be “cursed” or “blessed”? What about an hour, a minute or a moment? This week as we transition from the much maligned 2020 to the much anticipated 2021, I thought it might be worthwhile to explore the question with Yaakov Avinu.
At the conclusion of last week’s parsha, Yaakov describes his life to Pharaoh:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם׃
And Yaakov answered Pharaoh, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and ra’im have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Br. 47:9)
Yaakov describes his years as ra’im - bad, evil or troubled. The straightforward understanding of the text is that Yaakov had a very difficult life. As the Ha’amek Davar notes, Yaakov lamented that even during years when he was blessed with great wealth and not living in the shadows of Lavan or Esav, he nonetheless experienced great troubles concerning Rachel, Dina and others.
Seforno puts it most poignantly:
כי הימים אשר בהם יהיה האדם בצרה לא יקראו ימי שני חיים
Years during which a person is beset with major problems do not even count as “years of his life.”
Living a tortured life isn’t living.
The Malbim sees a more nuanced message in Yaakov’s reply:
א"ל יעקב שלא דייק בדבריו, שאם תשאלני על ימי שני מגורי אוכל להשיב לך שהיו שלשים ומאת שנה, אבל אם תשאלני על שני חיי, דע כי מעט ורעים היו ימי שני חיי, ר"ל השנים שהייתי חי חיים הנפשיים שהם חיי האדם.
Yaakov replied to Pharaoh that Pharaoh’s question was imprecise. ‘If you (Pharaoh) are asking me about my years of terrestrial life, I can reply that they are 130-years. However, if you are asking me about my years of (true) living, know that (those years) have been few and troubled.’ Meaning, those years when I was living a spiritually fulfilling life, that is true living.
Yaakov’s first 130-years are contrasted with his final seventeen at the beginning of Parshat Vayechi:
וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה...
And Yaakov lived in Mitzrayim seventeen years... (Br. 47:28)
The Ha’amek Davar notes that this phrase seems superfluous - we could work out the math of Yaakov’s life without it - unless its purpose is to emphasize “Vayechi.” Yaakov’s true ‘living’ was during those final seventeen years in Mitzrayim.
...שהיה חי חיים טובים ומתוקנים מה שלא הורגל בארץ ישראל.
For he lived a good and corrective/restorative life the likes of which he had never been accustomed to in Eretz Yisrael.
The Ha’amek Davar’s explanation invites the question: What is the “good and restorative life”? Likewise, our transition from 2020 to 2021 invites the question: What will constitute our ‘good and restorative life’?
Health and wealth are clearly not the sum total answer. Many of us continued to enjoy health and creature comforts during 2020 as did Yaakov for most of his 130 troubled years.
Cultivating spiritual growth would likely be the Malbim’s answer, and I am very hopeful that it will figure prominently in our communal response as we strive to Darchei Noam and reenergize our daily minyanim. True, the pandemic has given some of us more and different opportunities for learning. I greatly admire those who have found spiritual illumination during this period of darkness.
However, I believe strongly in the words of Shelomo HaMelech, Berov am hadrat Melech - In the presence of the multitudes, Hashem is glorified. Our community must be together, physically present and in large numbers to truly achieve our spiritual potential. Hitbodedut (isolation) and Zoom have their benefits, but ours is thankfully not a monastic faith.
There is another essential ingredient in Yaakov’s ‘good and restorative life’ and it is strongly present throughout parshat Vayechi. Positive, in-person relationships. So much of Yaakov’s earlier life is about fractured relationships punctuated by excruciating absences. The absence of Yosef. The absence of Rachel after her death. The earlier absence of Yaakov’s parents during his years of exile in the house of Lavan.
At last, in the final parsha of Bereishit and of Yaakov’s life, we see our Patriarch surrounded by progeny. The parsha is exceptionally brief – two chapters or seventeen years – yet it is rich in berachot. Yaakov dispenses berachot not only for his children and grandchildren, Efraim and Menashe, but for all of his generations – our generations throughout time: Yesimecha E-lohim k’Efra’im vechi’Menashe.
Equally noteworthy, Yaakov’s berachot are not all equal and some offer sharp critique. However, there is a conspicuous absence of fighting in the parsha. It is as if the family has reached a point where words, even challenging words, can be shared in love, honesty and respect.
2020 was a year of absence and fractured relationships. G-d knows the world is ready to be back together again, as Hashem states at the beginning of it all, Lo tov heyot Adam levad – It is not good for us to live in isolation.
May Hashem grant all of Hashem’s children in the months ahead a life worth living – a life of goodness and restoration, of spiritual and social connection, a life of blessing, respect and love.