January 1st has an almost ethereal feel to it. It’s definitely the new year—it’s been 2021 for more than 19 whole hours now—and I think we’re all pretty glad about that. As the clock turned to midnight last night, we all agreed that something changed, something significant was different about that second from the second before it. And now, in this calm eye of the storm kind of a day, we flirt with this very human desire to begin fresh with a clean slate. And the very obvious truth, of course, is that there really is no such thing as a clean slate. The second hand on the clock, slipping into a new year does not undo a past. Nor does it define a future.
My dear friend Rabbi Sari Laufer reminded me recently that Jewish tradition actually provides us a strong framework for this moment in which we are craving a new feeling, a fresh start, but find ourselves saddled with all the truths of a year past. Our Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, doesn’t claim to be a clean slate either. How do we know? Because ten days later, it’s followed by Yom Kippur, our day of repenting and forgiving and returning to one another. We celebrate our Jewish New Year still hanging onto all the baggage from the year before us. It’s as if there’s a grace period before the new year really takes effect, while we make sure we’ve gathered up what we need from the year behind us, do one last check of the place, until we finally feel ready to step forward in earnest.
In fact, we find a similar tug of war of time and heart in this week’s Torah portion—Vayechi—which is, fittingly, the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis.
We’ve reached the end of Joseph’s story—with Jacob blessing his children into the future, Joseph granting his brothers a conclusionary and redemptive forgiveness, and a profound healing of the different broken shards of our ancestors’ stories. It almost feels like a clean slate, as the loose ends are all wrapped up. But it is, in fact, a shockingly dynamic moment. Even as we exhale as the credits seem to role, in the same breath, a new story is beginning. It is reliant upon this one, shaped by this one, and no less defining of our identity. From the perspective of Joseph, perhaps all he and his brothers can see is the climax of their own story, but the structure of the Torah text itself tells us something quite different.
This Torah portion is bookended by two similar requests. This rich point was made by Rabbi Jill Hammer some years ago. At the beginning of the portion, Jacob instructs his children that when he dies, they should take him up out of Egypt and bury him with his family, back in their ancestral home. And at the end of the parsha, Joseph, Jacob’s son, asks his brothers to promise—that when our people leave Egypt, some unknown time in the future—that they should carry his bones out of Egypt with them.
Two requests about burial, two complimentary human needs for past and future, for history and for the story that will come next. And two inextricably linked requests by father and son.
Jacob asks for his children to help him complete the story of his past, of their past. To bury him with his family, from where they all came. He reaches backward to finish stitching up the story into a whole piece that is integrated and sound, connecting the brothers forever to their foundation, honoring their ancestors, and tying them to their origin story.
Joseph asks for his brothers to imagine and commit to a picture of their future. They will journey from this place again, he tells them, and they should remember to bring their stories, their unbroken lines of history, and their very bones, with them. In this request, Joseph signals that their future will be shaped by their past—different from it, but stronger for it. Connected backward to Jacob, to Isaac, and Abraham, and forward to their children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children. That is the power of a new year, or a new moment, or a new chapter in Jewish tradition, not being a clean slate, but being a slate that is written on and tells our story and also has room yet for writing the next chapter, too.
We are in just such a place at this new year and this moment of great transition in our congregation. We have spent this time, the months before us and ahead of us, moving in the direction of our merger with our family over at CBE. Together, we have been doing just as this Torah portion teaches us to do with deep wisdom, reaching back to remember and solidify our story—to unearth the memories buried deep in the walls and the floors and the Torah scrolls, in the prayer books, and in the classrooms, on the bima and in the ballroom and among the seats, in the hearts of the Union Temple community, in our very bones—from this generation and generations past. We have been making sure to honor our ancestors and tie ourselves to them like a tether to ground us in our story. And we have been reaching forward, dreaming into and dipping into and leaning into the future promise of the next stage of our journey. We’ve heard Joseph’s words, and we are intent on fulfilling his charge that we set our eyes on a future and that we do journey forward well, and that we do it with our stories, our bones, on our backs.
We celebrated Chanukah by raising up our memories, our toasts, the music of our communal life, blessings from voices of our past, blessings of a future about to be written. We will soon dip our toes into the learning and ritual opportunities found in our new destination. Beginning as soon as this coming week, all of that will be at our fingertips and in our inboxes. We will take time over January to get familiar with new prayers and new tunes and bit of a new culture of Friday night services.
And then, on the last Friday night of January, we will come together for our first joint Shabbat service. With a break in there for the Shabbat honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which we are also spending together with our CBE family, these three Shabbat services in January will give us a chance to raise up some of our favorites, to re-embrace some rituals that have become dear to us, to pray deeply and meaningfully together. To reach back toward old tunes, reach inward toward our resilient hearts, and reach forward onto a bridge of transition and transformation.
Like Joseph made sure of his people, we, too, travel there together. And there, we will lay down all of the bones, our calcium rich memories, the stories and the laughs and the grumbles and the quirks and the passions and the grit and the love. Oh the love in these bones.
This month, then, for us, is that grace period between a new year beginning and a new moment taking hold.
We may feel many things around this moment, including nostalgia, even grief, the heart-work of letting go of one reality in order to grasp on to the next. We might feel excited or inspired. We might feel proud of the work it took to get here. We might sit with the poignancy of change. When Joseph asks his brothers to take his bones with them, he says “v’ha’alitem et atzmotai”—not just take my bones, but lift them up. And through them, lift yourselves in an aliyah, an uplift, a rising, an ascent. As we carry with our bones all these emotions and experiences, may we also experience this ascent, this uplift, as we travel.
In this month, then, as we make our way to January 29th, like Jacob, we will reach backward into our story and like Joseph, we will reach forward and embrace the promise of a future, ever tied to and shaped by our past, with an eye toward the endless hope of the road that unfolds before us.