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Desire and Fear

Hanukah ended a week and a half ago. Christmas was yesterday, and this coming weekend is the end of the secular year. In other words, I write this devar torah amidst a season of desire, longing, and fear. The most powerful influence on all of us at this time of year is, let’s admit it, Christmas. Everywhere we turn - advertisements, movies, news stories, stores - what we hear and see is wanting and the threat of being disappointed. For many Jews, even if Hanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas” its underlying story is certainly one of desire and of the miraculous fulfilment of desire.

Our observance of the end of a year transforms the ordinary tendency for self-examination at milestones into the stereotype of resolutions for improvement - made and inevitably broken. There is nothing more human than wanting and planning. And there is nothing more likely to result from wanting and planning than disappointment and falling short. During the High Holy Days, we engage in heshbon nefesh - making an accounting of our souls. We pray to be and do better, and we pray for the fulfilment of our desires. Buddhism and Hinduism speak of desire and attachment as caused by maya - the delusion our senses create as to what is reality.

In the center of this week’s parsha we come upon desire and fear, but in the bustle of the parsha’s dramatic events it is easy to slip past them. As Jacob is on his way to live in Egypt, he stops at Beer-sheva to make a sacrifice to the God of his father Isaac. This is not the first time this family or Jacob has stopped to make a sacrifice here. We are not told what the purpose of the sacrifice was, but it might be a thanksgiving sacrifice. What would be more natural for an old man, now plunged into a strange story full of unexpected and very happy events. Joseph, the son he had long thought was dead is alive. Joseph is not only alive, he is a powerful leader. The family Jacob feared would die of starvation will live well.

But this was not a sacrifice of thanksgiving but, rather a sacrifice of desire and fear, seeking assurances that this journey will turn out well. After making the sacrifice, Jacob has a vision. In the middle of the night, God tells him: “Don’t be afraid to go down to Mitzraim / Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation. I - yes, I - will go down to Mitzraim with you, and I - yes, I - will bring you back up [to Canaan], and Joseph’s hand will close your eyes.” (Gen. 46:2-4) It is easy to skip this because, first, we’ve heard it before and, second, we know things will work out and, third, we want to get on with the story. But Jacob hasn’t heard, doesn’t know, and isn’t sure things aren’t as good as they can be at this moment.

God’s answer tells us what was in Jacob’s heart. Jacob was afraid that going to Egypt meant losing this God and losing this God’s promise of becoming a mighty people. This was, after all, a time in which Gods were seen as tied to specific localities. So when Jacob’s family crosses into Egypt, they will have to leave this God behind and worship other gods, gods who are unlikely to be interested in keeping this promise. So God’s reassurance of a continued relationship is extraordinary.

Second, this is not the first time this God has made a promise that this family will become a great people. It was first made to Abraham and made to him when he too was leaving his native land (Gen. 12:2). However, this is the first time God tells the listener not to be afraid. Why the need to be told not to fear?

This is the first time that the listener is going away from the promised land, and, thus, is the first time events seem to be moving in the wrong direction. God is telling Jacob that there will be no fabulous miracle. Instead, there will be twists and turns in life and in the fulfillment of this promise. Jacob must have been dumbfounded. If God is powerful and worth worshiping, why not just fulfill this promise in Canaan? Why make the route to fulfillment complicated, running through Mitzraim and then back to Canaan?

It is this last part that I think speaks to us and to our very human attachment and desire. We all make plans, we all have hopes for what will be, and we have fears that none of it will come about. We are always balanced between Canaan, the land where we think desires are fulfilled, and Mitzraim, the place we fear to go, but must go. When the multitude eventually leaves Egypt, they will stand on the shores of the sea afraid to go forward, longing for Mitzraim, but unable to go back. Life for most of us is not a peaceful voyage along a known route to a certain destiny.

There is only one certain destiny, and that is that our lives will end. It is on this matter that God gives Jacob perhaps the greatest comfort. When he dies, his beloved son Joseph will be alive and with him, and it will be Joseph who will lovingly close his father’s eyes.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah