Some time ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, something I do not get to do too often. My visit was a pilgrimage of sorts to these paintings that have had a tremendous impact on me and the world, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Munch’s The Scream, and Wyeth’s Christina’s World. The huge crowd at the museum came from all over the world to view these iconic pieces and given the manner in which everyone crowded around them with their ipads and iphones clicking away, one would have thought that we were paparazzi in Hollywood. I got caught up in the excitement as I clicked away on my iphone and furiously texted to my wife tongue-in-cheek messages like, “OMG, I’m like standing three feet away from Christina’s World!!!!!!!!,” complete with numerous exclamation points, as if I were a teenager meeting a celebrity.
As I always am when I look at it in photos, I was overwhelmed by the emotional power of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Its unnaturally oversized, swirling stars stand in direct contrast to the peaceful village sleeping below, conveying a deep sense of turbulence and energy. I had to pause to consider what that turbulence and energy are all about. Are they a reflection of Van Gogh’s inner emotional turbulence that was a well-known feature of his tormented life? Are they Van Gogh’s way of expressing nature’s energetic movement underlying what appears to be a calm and ordered world? Are they both? Are they neither? The beauty of great art such as Van Gogh’s is that it lends itself to robust debate about, and multiple interpretations of, what that art is doing or saying.
In like fashion, great writing, particularly the spare prose of biblical stories, lends itself to many readings that encourage energetic debate and disagreement about what the stories are saying and what they are teaching us. When we Jews talk about midrash, creative rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, we refer not only to the multiplicity of possible meanings in a sacred text, but to the engaged, passionate debate of faithful Jews that teases out those meanings. The opening of Jacob’s death bed speech to his sons in chapter 48 of Genesis provides us with an excellent example of this process.
And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.”
This appears to be a straightforward verse introducing Jacob’s address to his children. However, looking at the verse closely in context raises some important questions. Throughout Genesis, we have never known Jacob to possess any kind of prophetic power that would lead him to offer his children or anyone visions concerning the future. Further, as should be evident from reading his addresses to his sons, many of Jacob’s supposed prophesies are either descriptions or harsh criticisms of past behaviors. Is Jacob perhaps explaining to his sons what he expects them to become based upon what he knows about them now? Finally, we would expect Jacob to preface his addresses with far more intimate and familiar language than he does. Why bid his sons farewell by forcing them to listen to impersonal speeches that can only leave some of them scratching their heads in confusion or deeply resentful of him?
The view of modern Bible scholarship is that Jacob’s entire speech is actually a retrojection, a reading back into earlier history of what the Bible’s authors already knew about the Israelite tribes in their own day. However historically accurate that reading may be, it fails to capture the poetry and imaginative potential inherent in this poignant scene. For that, we turn to the sages of the midrashic tradition who offer us three intriguing, imaginative views about what is happening here.
The first view is that, indeed, Jacob began to tell his sons not only about their futures but about the future of the Jewish people and the future of the world as well. He promised them that the holy Temple would be built in Jerusalem and that the great apocalyptic battle foretold in the book of Ezekiel would in fact take place, thus ushering in an era of lasting world peace. The second view is very different. Jacob promised his sons a prophecy of what would befall them in days to come, but at that moment just before death, his powers of prophecy utterly failed him, and he was unable to tell them anything. Thus, he switched to critical analyses of each son, both good and bad. The third view is that from the very beginning of the end Jacob had lost all power of prophetic vision, so much so that he openly expressed fear that his children would not carry on the spiritual legacy that he had built. At that moment that he expressed his fear, his sons, referring to him by his new name, Israel, reassured him with the words that we call the Shma: “Hear, O Israel our father, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Reassured, Jacob spoke to each son and then passed from this world.
Think of that poignant, fragile moment when Jacob is about to speak to his sons for the last time in his life as if it were a brilliant, suggestive painting eliciting from our sages these three different readings of its meaning: each one is reflective of a unique perspective on life and death. None of these readings needs to be taken as literally true, though each one presents one piece of a greater truth about the human journey that is expressed with artistic and emotional sensitivity. Jacob is first seen idealistically as possessing great prophetic powers extending well beyond intimacy with his family: we could imagine that as an old man who has experienced life, he could impart wisdom and insight that no younger man could. However, the wisdom and insight of old age soon enough give way to the terrible reality of the shutting down of one’s mental and emotional capacities. Jacob wants to tell his sons the future, but impending death shuts out his ability to do so. Left with unresolved emotional wounds and resentments for which he and his children are responsible, Jacob is reduced to this almost pathetic admission: “I am about to leave this life, and I cannot even feel secure that the good things I have imparted to you will be carried on by you. Even this much of our future I cannot predict.” At that moment, his sons reassure him that the future of his hopes, his dreams, his legacy, his mission, his God, are in their good hands. He needs no power of prophecy, for they are his power.
The desire to see into the future – to know how things will turn out for us, our descendants, our community, the world – is a human impulse that lingers just below the surface of daily human awareness. We are feeling it quite pointedly right now, as we end a horrible 2020 and lurch into 2021. Yet I suspect this desire emerges most poignantly when we realize that our lives are nearing an end and we will no longer have a say in the destinies of those who remain after we are gone. These teachings of our sages remind us that we are limited in our power to control the future when we are alive, and even more limited as we prepare for death. Yet we have one power that, while not perfect, can last well into the future beyond our time on earth. It is the power to raise children, build relationships with students, and influence neighbors, colleagues, and loved ones with our own exemplary, if howbeit imperfect lives and actions. In a twist on Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar, I refer to that power as the good that we do that lives after us. It is this good which is our finest work of art, to which those who we leave behind can respond: “You have helped us understand how to live in the present. Rest assured that we will be your future.”