William Hamilton

2017: A year for surprise

Jacob dwells for 17 years with his sons in Egypt prior to his passing.  Is it conceivable that he never spoke with them about their deceptive presentation of Joseph’s bloody tunic to him so many years earlier?  Although the Torah doesn’t record any such conversation, it seems very unlikely that the painful memory of their flagrant falsehood never came up.   Yet there is no reference to it in the blessings Jacob bestows on his sons in this week’s portion of Torah.  Why?  One possible explanation: they had repented.  Jacob noted their repentance and appreciated it, so there was no reason to resurrect their wrong.

Jacob’s willingness to turn a corner and begin afresh can help ready us for the arrival of 2018.  We’ve come through a challenging 2017.  From Charlottesville to alarming revelations of the harassment and defilement of women, from disjunctive leadership changes to the Opioid epidemic, it has been a year that has normalized resentment and engendered fatigue. How then can we enter 2018 with fresh vigor, wakeful and poised for goodness?

“An individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning”  said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 45th yahrzeit is observed this Shabbat. “I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised.  That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it.  We must learn how to be surprised.  Not to adjust ourselves.” 

The late Reverend Martin Luther King, who along with Heschel, spoke at Kehillath Israel in 1966, also challenged our tendency to sleep through revolutionary times. “Too many people find themselves standing in a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental framework that the situation demands.”  As a result, concludes King, “time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent, primitive forces” that impede justice.

Jacob’s closing advice to his sons can empower our efforts to make 2018 a resilient year.  “Gather close” Jacob says “and I will tell you what will happen (asher yikra) in the future” (Gen. 49:1).  Curiously, the Hebrew word yikra is not written the way we would expect – with the final letter ‘hey’ indicating ‘what will happen to you’. It appears instead with the letter ‘aleph’ which can mean ‘what you will be called to make happen’.  Some events we are called to establish.  Yet even those things that happen by chance, those things beyond our control, still call on us to respond with our best. 

Surprise summons us.  May we heed Jacob’s empowering message – as did Heschel and King – retaining our composure, remaining wakeful, and proving poised for goodness’ sake in the year to come.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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