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“An Uncertain Future,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

December 29, 2023 | 17 Tevet 5784

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

The future is uncertain, but so is the past.

This week, the Book of Genesis ends and leads us to the beginning of Exodus. Jacob, who thought his beloved son, Joseph, had been killed by a beast, lives to see his son again. Jacob dies even though the portion is called, “Jacob lives.” Joseph dies, too, whose colorful life led him down to Egypt as a slave only to end up leading Egypt through famine and enabling his entire family to descend into the land of Goshen on the eastern delta of the Nile.

Genesis ends with clues in the Hebrew of how to begin again. It acknowledges death even as it reminds us that life continues, sometimes in unanticipated ways. Right after Jacob had died, Joseph’s brothers flung themselves before him to offer themselves up to be his slaves. They could not imagine that Joseph would not retaliate now that he had brought them down to Egypt and their father was no longer. But Joseph responded, “…although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so to bring about the present result — the survival of many people, am rav.” (Genesis 50:20) The brothers and their families lived in exile far from a life they had known. All became foreign to them. Survival must have seemed implausible. Becoming “many people, am rav,” was surely impossible.

By the time Exodus begins hundreds of years later, the people may have survived but they had entered the deepest darkness of slavery. But Joseph’s description of his family emerged from the mouth of the new Pharaoh who knew nothing at all of Joseph, his brothers, or his father. The Pharaoh, in distain of these slaves, overwhelmed by their numbers, described them, as am b’nai yisrael rav. (Exodus 1:9) Notice the word play here. In Genesis, they are only am rav, many people. Their descent into slavery has placed their legacy as descendants of Jacob, b’nai yisrael at the very center of their existence. It hints at what will guarantee their future. They become am b’nai yisrael rav.

In the dark times of descent, they found strength in one another and became stronger as a people tethered to the traditions of their heritage and generations before. We continue that legacy through our Jewish lives and connection to a larger synagogue community. There may be darkness but we remain to guarantee the future. Each one of us matters as the one who brings strength and courage to the challenges before us.
As we end the book of Genesis and look toward the (secular) new year, we take the words of our tradition to heart as we face an uncertain future.

Be strong. Be strong. And we will find inner strength together. חזק חזק ונתחזק

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!


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Rabbi Elaine Zecher