Well, we have arrived at the last Shabbat of 2020. Yes, it is our secular new year and does not hold the same weight for us as Rosh Hashanah does, but it’s natural to see this moment as meaningful for us, too. The human spirit desires many ways to mark time. To end things and to begin things.
So we take stock of 2020. Does anyone else have images of dumpster fires flying through their minds? 2020 is the year of worst-case scenarios becoming the inevitable and obvious outcome of most situations. Thanks for coming, 2020, and as my mom used to say—don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.
But there is still purpose in taking stock. See, a lot can happen in that tiny moment where something ends and something new begins. A whole world can happen in that single beat of time.
We find it in Parshat Vayigash this week. Remember that Joseph’s brothers have discovered that he is alive and is the second command of all of Ancient Egypt. And now, this week, Joseph is sending them home to tell their father this truth. And they don’t wanna. They are afraid that hearing this shocking news will kill him. And, in fact, in our text, the moment does stop Jacob’s heart.
וַיַּגִּ֨דוּ ל֜וֹ לֵאמֹ֗ר ע֚וֹד יוֹסֵ֣ף חַ֔י וְכִֽי־ה֥וּא מֹשֵׁ֖ל בְּכָל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַיָּ֣פָג לִבּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י לֹא־הֶאֱמִ֖ין לָהֶֽם׃
“And (they came home and) they told Jacob, ‘Joseph is still alive; yes, he is ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’ Vayafag leebo.”
Vayafag leebo is translated in many different ways because it is such a curious term and such an enormous moment. Some commentators translate this as Jacob hears this news and his heart goes numb. Some say it means his heart rejected the news. Some say he had a literal heart attack. Others that his heart skips, jumps, or misses a few beats. And time is frozen between life and death, between not knowing and knowing, between what was and the unknown of what will be. Vayafag leebo—and in that space, that moment of time, Jacob takes stock.
Imagine what he sees flying through his mind. 22 years of grief since he learned that his son Joseph was dead. 22 years, he hasn’t had any connection with God. In 22 years, he has raised sons and a daughter. He has witnessed the massacre of a city in his name. He’s enjoyed grandchildren. He has loved his favorite, Benjamin, and learned to raise him in a way that caused less pain and jealousy for his brothers than how he raised Joseph. Part of him has been alive and part of him dead all these years, deep in grief even as he found ways to walk in the world as a father, a grandfather, a leader, an ancestor, and link to the future.
There is quiet in this moment, a freeze frame as he integrates this new information.
And then that frozen moment in time resolves.
וַיְדַבְּר֣וּ אֵלָ֗יו אֵ֣ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֤י יוֹסֵף֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּ֣ר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וַתְּחִ֕י ר֖וּחַ יַעֲקֹ֥ב אֲבִיהֶֽם׃
“And when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them…spirit of their father Jacob revived”—vatchi, like the word chai.
He is alive again. Not alive as he was—half alive and half dead—but now his numb heart unnumbs and he can feel again. And for the moment that hung in the balance, he now sees a different future ahead of him.
In some ways Jewish and secular near years are just such a frozen moment in time. We reflect on what was and we gaze at any number of possible futures before us. The last Shabbat of 2020 gives us a pause. We watch as the year behind us replays itself. It began so normally. We were having programs and services, we were looking at a loan and talking to developers. We went to work. We were fretting over the most normal of frets and celebrating the sweetest joys. In February, we started to hear of a virus circulating through the world. We planned for Purim, our kids went to school, we saw our parents a normal amount. March rolled in and we started to see our future path by looking at other countries’ experiences. Lockdown. Quarantine.
March 13th was the first Shabbat that Union Temple ever went virtual with just me and Ben and Caryn in our ballroom, sitting unmasked 6 feet away from each other, singing and praying and shaking our heads at the weirdness of it all on Facebook live. A week later, we were already on Zoom—wondering how long this would last. Since then, waves have crested and fallen. We drew sunshines for our windows and sang Here Comes the Sun when the sick made it out of hospitals—a rare occurrence in those early days. Afraid, we sang “On the Other Side of Fear” for months. We clapped at 7pm every night. George Floyd died and we took to the streets in protest and agony and unity. We learned to mask ourselves and what kinds of masks our children would wear. We wrote a prayer for peace every single week right here. We lost and we lost and we lost—our loved ones, our hope, our patience. And we flattened the curve and saved lives. We were witness to and tried to stop an all out attack on our democracy. And the rollercoaster continued through a spring and a summer and a fall. Purim and Passover and Shavuot and the High Holy Days and Sukkot and a merger and a vote and dancing with Torahs—all online. A brief respite to blow shofar together outside, in person. And now the numbers creep back up. It is the last Shabbat of 2020. For a moment, our hearts go numb, freeze, jump a few beats, and we reflect.
What are you reflecting? What images are going through your mind now?
What were your breaking points, your silent screams, your victories, your revelations? What were the moments when you found purpose? When do you recall feeling unexpected joy? What are your memories of agony? When did someone offer you words of comfort or show up when you needed them? When did Shabbat shock you by being a presence you looked forward to? When did a laugh escape, when did a tear get through? What have you learned? What have you taught? How have you softened? When did you become tough?
What will we hold onto from this year? What will we let go of?
After Jacob had reflected in this moment of frozen time, and his heart was revived, he does reconnect with his son, his family, himself. Just a few verses later, he speaks to God again, for the first time in 22 years.
There is a midrash about what happens in that in between moment—how he makes it to live again. A woman, his granddaughter, Serach bat Asher, comes to him to deliver the news. She waits for him to be in prayer and she sings softly to him the news, a short phrase a few times over, until it permeates him. Because the brothers don’t want the news to destroy him, they ask Serach bat Asher to intervene in this moment and her empathy and patience and gentle words guide him through this life-altering moment. His heart hurts, nearly bursts, from his reflecting; but he is revived in his gaze forward—all for her heroic and kind presence.
As our year clicks over from 2020, honestly, we don’t know what’s ahead—better, we hope, or God forbid, worse. But we can help one another’s hearts revive for what’s next. By being like Serach bat Asher coming to Jacob—holding one another with gentle words, deep empathy, profound compassion, and bone-deep understanding of one another. Let us leave behind that which we have spurned and take with us what we have earned and learned. And when 2021 begins—whatever it has in store for us, may our hearts, too, be revived. May we connect more deeply with our families, our innermost selves, our God. May we resee the world with new eyes, refeel the world with new hearts, and remake this world with ready hands, together. May this new secular year be sweeter than the days before and may we heal our wounds within it. Amen.