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Vayechi: Can You See the Forest for the Trees?

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How to Navigate Transitions
It saddens the heart to hear about his week’s tragic suicide of Mark Madoff, the 46-year old son of the disgraced Ponzi schemer, Bernard Madoff, who defrauded people of an unprecedented $50 billion or more. What can we learn from this tragedy? So often we get consumed with the pain of the moment that we cannot see things in perspective – the bigger picture. Therefore, we must learn how to step back and distinguish between painful losses and true openings of new horizons. But how?
This sermon takes us back to one of the first paradigm shifts in history – the death of Jacob, an event that heralded the beginning of the harsh Egyptian exile and the ensuing grand exodus, all of which have parallels in our modern times. Along the way, the sermon explores how to understand time and see our lives as frames of a larger narrative.If we perceive ourselves as traveling in a little boat down the fast-moving river of time, all we can see is the sky above us, the river banks on each side, and maybe the fish in the water. We no longer see our point of departure, and we cannot see our destination. If a storm comes all we can do is hold onto the rudder and hope we don’t sink. But if we see ourselves as a bird flying over the river, we can see everything. This is also an analogy for the body and soul – the body travels in the boat, the soul soars like the bird. If we relate only to the physical, only to our body, then we will feel trapped in time. We will feel blinded by events, and we will not see our way clear to a solution. In short, we will feel trapped. But if we find a way to relate to the bird in our soul, we will have the ability to soar and traverse change, challenge and transition.

With that understanding, we can learn how to navigate an uncertain future, as we transition from one life-space into another, and we can stay the course and grow through the process.

Can We Find Good in Evil?
Evil appears to be a real force in the world. Often we find ourselves challenged by it and desperate to know how to overcome it. How do we weaken evil? How do we diminish its force? How do we deal with its various manifestations in our lives, such an abusive employer or a corrupt colleague?

We find the answers in this week’s Torah reading, which begins, “And Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years…” Biblical commentators make a great deal of this introduction, noting that 17 is the numerical value (gematria) of tov (“good”). They thus conclude that Jacob’s final years in Egypt were the best years of his life.

But we have to ask: How is that possible? Jacob spent 17 “good” years in the land of evil. The Egypt of his day was the most depraved of civilizations. The Egyptian polytheistic religion and its morals and ethics – witness the subsequent wholesale slaughter of newborn baby boys – ran totally counter to those of Jacob and his family. Furthermore, his sojourn in Egypt began 210 years of exile and bondage. So what could be good about it?

The answer lies in the cosmic understanding of the meaning of Egypt –Mitzrayim – which represents the limitations and constraints of our lives. Yet these constraints – as difficult and even painful as they often are – have a purpose.The key thing to remember is that Mitzrayim is never an end in itself. It is merely the means to something greater. To be stuck in limitations is bad indeed. To use limitation as a springboard to greatness that is true good.

The same can said of any difficult challenge. We can see it as an evil in our life and be devastated and paralyzed by it. When we do, the real evil begins to grow. But if we find within ourselves the capacity to see the good beneath the surface, we empower the good and we grow as a result into greater, better people.

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