Three stories of life and death are at the core of our readings this week from the Torah and the Haftarah. We read about Jacob, Joseph and David. We have explicit information about how long Jacob lived, “the length of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years.” We also know the length of life of Joseph, “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years”. About David, King David that is, we read simply this, “The days that David reigned over Israel were forty years: seven years he reigned in Hebron and thirty-three years he reigned in Jerusalem.” There is an supposition that he lived to the age of seventy. Life is elusive and what is more interesting than the length of life itself it is what has been done during this life term and the way that that life formulated or attempted to formulate the future.
Each of the three, Jacob, Joseph and David, tried in their own way to shape the future. Jacob calls upon his sons and declares, “Assemble yourselves that I may tell you what will befall you in the days to come. Gather together and hear, O sons of Jacob; And listen to Israel your father.” He has something to say to each of his sons, sometimes briefly, “As for Gad, raiders shall raid him, But he will raid at their heels.” Sometimes it is long and detailed, “Joseph is a fruitful bough, A fruitful bough by a spring; Its [y]branches run over a wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, And shot at him and harassed him; But his bow remained firm, And his arms were agile, From the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob (From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel), From the God of your father who helps you, And by the Almighty who blesses you With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that lies beneath, Blessings of the breasts and of the womb. The blessings of your father Have surpassed the blessings of my ancestors Up to the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; May they be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of the one distinguished among his brothers.”
Joseph made it to an old age and it is said about him that “Joseph saw the third generation of Ephraim’s sons; also the sons of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were born on Joseph’s knees.” While still alive he makes a promise to his worried brothers upon return to the land of Egypt after the burial of their father, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. 21 So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones. Prior to his death he has the Israelites reminds them that “God will surely [s]take care of you” and requests, “carry my bones up from here.” Just like his father before him, he does not want his remains to stay in a foreign land and wants to be brought back home.
King David is a totally different man, he is a man of wars and peace, a man of love and hatred. It is therefore no wonder that when his time comes he call he heir King Solomon and requests on one hand, “Keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His ordinances, and His testimonies, according to what is written in the Law of Moses, that you may succeed in all that you do and wherever you turn”. On the other hand he must also take care of those who were with him or against him during his life time and therefore also adds, “Now you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner, and to Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed; he also shed the blood of war in peace. And he put the blood of war on his belt about his waist, and on his sandals on his feet. So act according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace. But show kindness to the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table; for they assisted me when I fled from Absalom your brother. Behold, there is with you Shimei the son of Gera the Benjamite, of Bahurim; now it was he who cursed me with a violent curse on the day I went to Mahanaim. But when he came down to me at the Jordan, I swore to him by the Lord, saying, ‘I will not put you to death with the sword.’ Now therefore, do not let him go unpunished, for you are a wise man; and you will know what you ought to do to him, and you will bring his gray hair down to Sheol with blood.”
Different people with different approaches. Each having their own life experiences, their ups and their downs. Each has a way of telling their life story through what they say and that which they do not. As I said, death is an elusive thing. In a poem named Generationpoerty (דורשירה) the poet Yair Ben-Haim says (in my free translation) “I say poetry I do. Meaning something in me died and yet I exist.” Every year we lose people of importance to our lives and something of them is lost forever. On the other hand, as long as we make sure that we remember them they have not really died. What we remember of them, what they have done, how they have acted, the advice that they would provide, the ways in which they would have reacted, allows us to take something of them and take it forward a step at a time.
This week, here in Israel, several lives were lost as a result of rains and the floods that resulted from them. We enjoyed the blessing of water on one hand, and the price of lost lives on the other. Some sacrificed their lives some suffered horrifying deaths. It is doubtful that with the passage of time their names will remembered like that of the names of Jacob, Joseph and David. Still, they and their families paid a high price and we are tasked with making their deaths meaningful. We have to demand the acceptance of responsibility, the fixing that which is wrong, negligent and harmful. We must take death and convert it into life.
Reuven Marko, 10 January 2020, 14 Tevet, 5780