Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayichi. In it, Jacob gives his final blessings to his sons and the sons of Joseph. He prophesies what will become of the men as their families develop into the tribes of Israel. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5b), there is a midrash on this:
Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: “So said Rabbi Yochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.” Asked Rav Nachman: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?” Replied Rabbi Yitzchak: “I am only citing a verse. It is written (Jeremiah 30:10): ‘And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the L‑rd, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your progeny from the land of their captivity.’ The verse equates Jacob with his progeny: just as his progeny are alive, he too is alive.”
From this we see that the parasha is very fitting both for a Bar Mitzvah weekend and the Shabbat before Martin Luther King Day, and we just so happen to find ourselves in both situations. Just as Jacob passes the torch on to his progeny, so too do we hand off new responsibility to Jewish learning and community to a young member of our community. We foresee a great future of love and respect for Judaism and that this Bar Mitzvah will bring honor to the Tribes of Israel. As long this young man lives by Torah, Judaism and our people are kept alive, as Jacob lives through his descendants.
By the same logic, those who continue to fight for the civil rights of all Americans keep alive Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As long as we continue to advocate for the freedom and dignity for all people and ensure true equality in this country, we are the spiritual progeny of Dr. King, and as we live, he lives too.
As Jacob is blessing his sons, he also takes the time to rebuke Simeon and Levi for their massacre at Shechem, and then he says that he too held the sword and bow there, though we know that the Torah tells us he did not join in the slaughter of Shechemites. A series of assorted midrash that build on each other clarifies this to tell us that when Jacob learned of Simeon and Levi’s misdeeds, though he did not want them, he still loved his sons dearly and wanted to protect them. So, he took up his sword and bow to stand guard at the gates of the city of Shechem to prevent any survivors from coming to kill Simon and Levi in retribution. Another midrash further explains that “sword and bow” in Jacob’s hands really means prayer and supplication. A third midrash expounds that we know that prayer is like a bow because the closer you draw it into yourself, the farther the arrow flies. So, too, the closer we draw prayer into our hearts, the greater affect it can have on our actions, the more so it can guide us to better the world.
As our Bar Mitzvah grows and takes on the responsibility of being an adult in our community, may he find inspiration in these midrashim and in the legacy of Reverend King to all spiritual people. Our prayer, our values learned from Torah and God, are our greatest weapons. With them, we can truly fight inequality with great reach. Selling books to a second-hand store to help people struggling with financial stability still have access to books, and then using that money to help feed hungry children is a great start. I look forward to seeing how your tikkun olam grows and matures as you do. May everyone in our community, regardless of age, can take up this mantle of spiritual social justice. Amen, Mazel tov to tomorrow’s Bar Mitzvah boy, and Shabbat Shalom.