I want to tell you about a little girl I knew once. A baby, really, and whenever she would sit and eat in her high chair, whatever it was – rice cakes, Cheerios, cookies, whatever – she would insist on having two of them. One for each hand. A very smart girl: she wouldn’t start eating until she knew where her next meal was coming from. Even then, she was planning for the future: one rice cake in each fist.
There is no crazy twist ending – that girl was, of course, this sweet, amazing Elisheva Chaya, who has somehow gone and grown up. I don’t know how this happens. Perhaps those of you who have known Shraggie all along are similarly surprised at how this could have happened, right under our noses. No, I’m not going to start singing “Sunrise, Sunset,” but you all know I could at any moment.
Over the last few weeks in the parsha, we have been reading the story of Yosef, a story which is all about grasping the present while planning for the future: planning for famine, planning for geulah – Hashem planting the seeds of redemption even before the exile begins.
You, Elisheva Chaya, come from a long line of people who cared very, very deeply about the Jewish future. A line of strong and occasionally stubborn people. People who crossed oceans and worked for the community to build a future in every way they could. Your grandfather, Bubby’s father, Sam Posluns, was among the first Canadians to visit Europe after the war and witness the devastation, not just to gasp in horror, as most of us probably would have done, but to report back and figure out what the Jewish community could do to make these people whole again. He was also a founder and early president of
the Board of Jewish Education in Toronto.
On the other side, although none of our immediate relatives was in Europe during the war, your paternal grandparents came to Canada on their own as teenagers between the wars to build a life for themselves, planning ahead for me, and for you. After the war, they brought over family members, sharing their home and their lives, and doing what they could to ensure that what was left of our family would not only survive but would have a wonderful life, full of freedom, with limitless horizons.
All of these ancestors and so many more, all the way back, are there, still living within you. In one of the more wonderful stories about Yosef, when he’s with Potifar’s wife and she’s trying to lure him in, a midrash says he glanced in a mirror and saw his mother, Rachel Imeinu. Since he looked like her, we’re told, it’s probable that what he saw was himself, but himself as a reflection, an extension, the living embodiment of all those who had come before him.
Seeing Rachel Imeinu in the mirror reminded Yosef of who he was, of where he had come from. It gave him clarity – he knew exactly what he had to do in that moment. He did the right thing, fleeing from Potifar’s wife and never looking back.
The stories of Yosef and his family are fascinating, of course, and they’re wonderful to read every single year. But this week, we reached an interesting point: the end of sefer Bereishit. The story about Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, and their family is over. That story ends on a bittersweet note: the family is all together again, at last, but they’re also in exile. And then, the elders die and the next generation is alone, without their ancestors, as their lives get more and more complicated and bitter, more and more distant from their purpose in this world.
A midrash tells us that bnei Yisrael didn’t become slaves overnight; they became slaves little by little, as the Mitzrim added tasks, subtracted from their salary, added more and more restrictions. This is exactly what we saw in Europe all too recently, so we know those kinds of things really do work to keep one group subjugated even in the midst of a thriving, modern society. Finally, as we’ll read next week, they become slaves, and they cry out to Hashem, almost like they’re surprised at how they ended up this way – the 49th level of tumah, so far from where they were supposed to be.
But Yosef has already planned for the future, and so has Hashem. Bnei Yisrael are living in Goshen, apart from the rest of the Mitzrim, and they’ve preserved some traces of their past. There are also some important people among them who transmit the message even when nobody seems to notice or care, like Serach bat Asher, who kept the memory alive of the burial place of Yosef at a time when nobody was thinking about geulah.
Serach wasn’t alone. At a time when most of bnei Yisrael were occupied with the daily tasks of slavery, some people were polishing their tambourines, so to speak, for the geulah they foresaw would happen – people like Yocheved and Miriam, our role models: incredible, powerful Jewish women who moved through a world of misery and subjugation with one fist full of the material things they needed to survive, and the other tightly wrapped around the Jewish future.
Long, long ago, perhaps before you even existed, your Zeidy, my father, showed me something he was reading in the newspaper. I remember there was a chart that said, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?” It showed an intermarriage rate that I now realize was actually an optimistic projection, and a diagram of what the likelihood was that Judaism would continue into the next generation. It was very, very uncharacteristic of him for a number of reasons. He was raised in a tradition of secular humanism, and this felt to me like an admission that as important as it was for us to be good people, and to be part of the human race, there was something worth preserving specifically about Judaism. It was worth worrying about its future.
He was so proud to have Jewish grandchildren, and of course, I can’t think of many things he loved more than weddings. So it goes without saying that this past Tuesday night, watching the little girl he ran behind on a bike taking her place under the chuppah would have been among the top moments of his entire life. He was there, of course, in every way but physically. As was your own father, even if Shraggie would have towered over him.
One summer day, too long ago now, Tatty woke up with you and took you fishing and at the end of that perfect, beautiful day, he wrote, “I can't believe today is already over. The pace of time is dire and lovely.”
The pace of time fools us all, dire and lovely, connecting the past and the future and ensuring that every cliffhanger has its next chapter. There’s no stopping it.
The book of Bereishit ends on one of the greatest cliffhangers of all time. Hashem has promised Avraham a future – children so numerous they’re uncountable and a land flowing with every good thing. And instead, bnei Yisrael are heading into subjugation in a land that is horrifically distant. None of the promises have come true, at least, not in any lasting way.
The only reason we’re not in suspense at the end of Bereishit is because we’ve read it before. We know there’s a happy ending. But if you were living it, moment by moment, it’s easy to imagine that the experience would have been terrifying – taking that leap of faith into an unknown future where you will experience great hardship before things eventually get better.
This Elisheva Chaya is so, so precious. She’s ahead of her time in so many ways, ever since she came into the world six weeks early, always the very youngest kid in every class, making aliyah on her own and supporting herself at an age when most of her friends were still figuring out what they wanted to do and how to start doing it. She’s the only one of our four children who wasn’t named after anybody. Her name is all her own, which turned out just fine because her personality, too, is all her own. It’s like people say about the game of chess – “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” At least, that’s how it’s been for me, just an astonishing and wonderful process of getting to know Elisheva Chaya, a process that began that surprising December 31st twenty-two years ago today and which will never, ever end. I wish you both a lifetime of getting to know each other, mastering the things that make each of you unique and amazing.
Elisheva Chaya, there are so many people I wish could see you now as an adult, fully-grown and amazing. But if you look in the mirror, just as Yosef did, I think you’ll see that they’re all still there with you.
In this week’s parsha, as we concluded with Chazak Chazak, we were closing one book a moment before we open the next, poised on the verge of a tremendous adventure, a journey that will lead to Har Sinai and eventually to eretz Yisrael. It’s a straight line that leads directly to your life, as you and Shraggie hang your shining crystal jewel on the bright, bright chandelier that is Am Yisrael, lighting up the world.
The pace of time is dire and lovely, but you are part of something eternal and you are building the future – a nation, a land, a Jewish family – and that means you are also in a sense immortal. I feel so honoured that we were all able to be a part of that this week.
From strength to strength – may you both be strengthened.