The names of the sons of Israel who came (Exodus 1:1)
שמות בני ישראל הבאים (שמות א:א)
The Bible text uses this literary device in the first verse of the book of Exodus: “Now these are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob…” (1:1) This translation, while contextually accurate, ignores a subtlety in the text. In Hebrew we read that these are “the names of the sons of Israel haba’im—which literally means “who are coming”—to Egypt.” In his work Tosefet Brachah, the early twentieth century Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Baruch Epstein wonders why the biblical text uses the present tense when describing an event that occurred in the past. Why doesn’t the Torah say that these are the sons of Israel haba’u—who came—to Egypt? He answers that the Bible wrote the text in the manner that people speak. He writes, “This is the manner of people, when they relate an engaging experience from their lies, they express it in the present tense and say, ‘I go,’ ‘I sit,’ ‘I stand,’ ‘I say,’ instead of ‘I went,’ ‘I sat,’ ‘I stood,’ and ‘I said’…And the Torah writes in the manner of human speech.” In other words, the Torah writes using historical present. In order to make the story that much more vivid, instead of telling a dry story about the past, we read about it in the present tense. Historical present has a psychological component as well. When we speak in the present, we make events more real because in our mind, they’re happening now, and not at some distant point in the past. Judaism believes strongly in this device. The celebration of the Seder on Passover asks us not to reenact an event that happened in the past, but instead, “Each person is obligated to see himself as if he himself went out of Egypt.” (Passover Hagadah) The Exodus isn’t simply a story that happened to other people many centuries ago, rather it is the story of the Jewish people.
Jews from around the world also relate in historical present to the holy city of Jerusalem, which has represented the Jewish hopes, yearning, prayer and focus for the past 3,000 years. With more than 850 references to Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible and innumerable references to the city throughout more than 2,000 years of post-biblical literature, Jerusalem has served as the spiritual capital of the Jewish people throughout the exile. After the birth of the state of Israel, that historical present relationship with Jerusalem became reality, for today Jerusalem is the physical capital of the Jewish state, and we connect with our past and present as one. It is precisely due to our strong, innate connection to Jerusalem that we find Palestinian attempts like last October’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) approval of a resolution that ignored Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, so disturbing and dismaying. (UNESCO) that deny our historic connection to our holiest sites in Jerusalem cannot change the truth of history, nor will they alter the present reality that Jerusalem is and will always be Israel’s capital city. Instead, they represent an affront to the truth and a crude attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state. Shabbat Shalom
Sharing the Burden
Deal kindly and truly with me (Genesis 47:29)
ועשית עמדי חסר ואמת (בראשית מז:כט)
Parashat Vayechi teaches us that it is incumbent upon us to share the burden of their loss, emotionally, spiritually and practically.
Parashat Vayechi serves as the source for many of the Jewish traditions associated with death and mourning. We derive the Hebrew term for funeral—“levaya,” from the word “lelavot,” which means “to accompany,” noting the important custom of accompanying the dead on their final journey before burial. The very practice of a funeral procession so prevalent today recalls the actions of Joseph and his brothers, whose accompaniment of their father’s body for burial to the Land of Canaan made a significant impression upon the inhabitants of the Land, (see 50:11) and bringing great honor to Jacob. Commenting on Jacob’s request to Joseph that the son deal with him “kindly and truly” (47:29)—literally meaning “with kindness with truth”—the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 59) wonders, “Is there such a thing as ‘kindness with falsehood’ that Jacob would have to ask for ‘kindness with truth?’ This can be answered with a popular saying among the people: ‘If your friend’s son dies, share with him in the burden and help him in his time of need by sharing his pain and carrying the bier to the grave…And if your friend dies, remove every other obligation to assist him, knowing that there will be no one to repay you for this kindness.” We can only perform true kindness when we assist others without expecting anything in return, which is why Judaism calls the great mitzvah of preparing and burying the dead “chessed shel emet”—true kindness and the ideal form of a mitzvah.
When the Midrash exhorts us “share in the pain” when our friend’s child dies, we must see this teaching as a challenge.Jacob reminds us that we must share the burden of these losses in three important ways. Emotionally, we must mourn their deaths, and appreciate the sacrifices that they and their families made on behalf of the American people and the people of Israel. Spiritually, we must pray for their souls, and ask God to bring them and their family’s eternal peace. But we can also bear in the burden in a practical way as well. Not everyone can enlist, but we all must do our part to protect the freedoms we hold so dear. Sharing the burden means getting involved in ways that are meaningful to each of us—supporting American soldiers here at home or working and speaking out to ensure that Israeli soldiers continue to have the support, training and materials that they need to protect their country.
The greatest way to honor the lives of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf is to continue their holy work, and share the burden of fighting for and protecting the freedoms that the people of Israel and the United States enjoy each day.