Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
December 2018 | Tevet 5779In this week’s parashah, the last of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, our perfectly imperfect patriarch, comes to the end of his long and eventful life—a life shaped, you might say, by the effort to grow into his father Isaac’s blessing—the blessing stolen from his huntsman brother, Esau: to receive the dew of the heavens, the abundance of earth, to be a lord among nations, and a ruler of his kinsmen. Now, lying on his deathbed, eyes “kavdu mizoken,” heavy with age, as his father’s had been at the end of his life, it is Jacob’s turn to bless his large, unruly brood, twelve sons, sired through four mothers—the beloved Rachel, the less loved Leah, and their handmaid surrogates, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Last year during the week of Parashat Va-yekhi, I was co-leading a retreat at Commonweal in the Pacific coastal hamlet of Bolinas, CA. Attending the retreat was a multi-generational group of artists and activists who had come together to deepen their connection to Jewish text and practice. I looked forward to chanting from Torah on Shabbat and had chosen some of these verses in which Jacob instructs and blesses his twelve sons. As is the custom in my Jewish Renewal community, I planned to introduce the verses with a kavannah, an intention, designed to “call” to the Torah whoever felt called by the essence of that aliyah, and then to seal the reading with a spontaneous mi-she’berakh, a blessing inspired by the encounter between the text, the moment, and the energy of the people present.
As I studied my verses throughout the week and meditated on possible kavannot, on the blessing that might come to all of us through Jacob’s sometimes opaque, seemingly prophetic blessings for each of his twelve sons, nothing was coming. Usually, when I’m to leyen Torah, streams of text and commentary, both old and new, flow together and mix with my intuitive sense of who will be in the room and what they might need to hear. Now I felt completely dry.
On Shabbat morning, before we gathered for our service, I walked through the pine trees to a small meditation hut perched on a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Commonweal was founded more than 40 years ago, with a vision of providing healing retreat space for cancer patients and their families. Many of the folks who have come to meditate in the tiny chapel by the sea have brought both deep grief and the dawning of acceptance––for their own years shortened or for the imminent passing of a loved one. Alone there, in the quiet, resonant space filled with the loving energy of the many who had meditated there before me, I sank into a reverie.
Suddenly it was as if the ruakh ha-kodesh, the ocean winds outside and the rise and fall of breath within, had swept the heaviness from my eyes and freed an inner voice, whispering to me how to enter the Torah text on this particular Shabbat, surrounded by these particular folks, many of whom were young and burning with a passion for justice for people of all races and genders and classes, and for our earth. Quickly I made my way back to our communal meeting room, where the Shabbat service was beginning.
When it came time to chant the verses of Jacob’s final prophetic blessings for his sons, I explained how I had struggled to connect with the Torah’s message for this Shabbat and for our group, and how I had gone to meditate on the bluff. “What came to me,” I told them, “is that the I could not bring through this Torah, because the blessing for Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is missing. In our parashah Jacob sees and touches and honors and blesses his two grandsons, Menashe and Efraim, Joseph’s sons, and then offers blessings for each of his own twelve sons, whose offspring will become the tribes of Israel. But nowhere is Dinah—the beautiful, raped, disgraced daughter of Leah—seen or mentioned or blessed.”
As I spoke, I could sense Dinah hovering just outside the room in which Jacob lay dying. Or perhaps she was far away, in exile. Had she come down to Egypt with the rest of the family to escape the famine in Canaan? Or had she been drummed out of the family? Ancient and contemporary midrashim, most notably Anita Diamant’s richly imagined The Red Tent, have attempted to fill in the bare bones of Dinah’s story, but I needed her here, this day, this Shabbat, present with her brothers at their father’s bedside, seen, acknowledged.
So I invited all of us, together, to channel the words of Dinah’s missing blessing. I can’t remember exactly what we said, it was so much of the moment. There were affirmations of Dinah’s being, expressions of comfort and understanding and honor. And there were tears. I heard one of my fellow retreat leaders, a male rabbi, sitting behind me, quietly sobbing. “Dinah, come, we welcome you! No matter what has befallen you in your life, no matter what path you have chosen, you, too, are our lineage holder! You, too deserve your father’s blessing. We honor you, we make space for you in this room, in our family. You are seen, embraced, invited.”
I felt the spirit of Dinah seep into the room. Only then, only after we had ignited the “white fire” of Torah, the invisible words emanating from between the lines of the Torah scroll and rising from our hearts and throats, was I able to chant the verses inscribed on the parchment.
Sometimes what is missing is as important as what is seemingly present. As countless generations of midrashists have taught us, it is often from these proverbial “white spaces,” these wellsprings of dream, imagination, and visionary truth, that the Torah needed for this very moment, the Torah that speaks directly to our hearts, bubbles up.
On this and on every Shabbat, let us bless our daughters and our sons, our nieces and our nephews, our grandchildren, our students—our beloved young people of every gender—not only with our words, but through the integrity with which we live and through our fierce, ongoing commitment to make this world a better, more habitable place for them to grow and come of age in. And let us never fail to witness, name, and cherish each one’s shining essence: “May God help you become exactly who you are. May the Divine bless and keep you safe; may God’s light shine upon you with grace; may you perceive the Holiness in the faces of others and in the world, lifting you up, cherishing you, making you whole.”
Khazak khazak, v’nit’khazek,may we be strong, strong, and strengthen one another.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2018