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Joy and Obstinacy – A Dvar Torah on Vay’chi

18 Tevet 5781 – January 1, 2021

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃

And Yaakov called to his sons and said “Gather yourselves and I will tell you what will happen in future days”.

This is the start of the section of the Torah portion Vay’chi in which Yaakov predicts the future for his sons and their tribes. The sages and the composers of the classic midrashim read the last bit of that sentence to mean that Yaakov is going to tell his sons about the End Times, the final Redemption when the Messiah comes. But that is not what Yaakov actually does, so we ask why not? Rashi, the eminent commentator of 11th Century France, says Yaakov was about to reveal what he knew about the Final Redemption, but the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of God, withdrew from him to prevent him from doing so.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, author of a wonderful collection of Divrei Torah for each weekly Torah Portion called “Living Each Week” discusses this. The departure of the Divine Presence from one of our Patriarchs seems drastic and inconceivable. Rabbi Twerski gives us a teaching of the Rabbi of Rodomsk (and here I think he means Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen Rabinowicz, who founded a Chasidic dynasty in Poland in the 1840s). All God needed to do was not let Yaakov know about the End Times, but leave his prophetic powers otherwise intact. What actually happened, says Rabbi Shlomo, was that the Shechinah did not withdraw from Yaakov, but Yaakov saw all the horrible things that would befall the Jewish people in the future and all of that so disturbed him that he stopped being joyous. And the Talmud tells us that our simcha, our joy, is necessary for the Shechinah to rest upon us. Yaakov lost the capacity for joy and so he himself caused the loss of the Divine Presence.

Think about that for a moment – we must be joyous to be in the presence of the Divine.

Rabbi Twerski now asks what are we to do, who experienced so much of what Yaakov saw as the future. How are we to retain the Divine inspiration available to us knowing what we know, if even so powerful a prophet as Yaakov could not pull this off? Rabbi Twerski takes us in an unexpected direction. He brings in the story of the Golden Calf. You will remember that God was incensed at us at Sinai over the matter of the Golden Calf, and God threatened to destroy the people and start over. Moshe pleads with God and says in Exodus 34:9 כִּ֤י עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֙רֶף֙ ה֔וּא - we are a “stiff-necked people”.

I had always thought this was a bad thing, to be stiff necked. Rabbi Twerski says maybe not so much. Our “obstinacy”, as he characterizes being stiff necked, can be a good thing at least some of the time, because it allows us to persevere in the face of huge amounts of pain and tragedy. And here comes Rabbi Twerski’s amazing teaching. Obstinacy allows us to overcome trials and regain our sense of joy. And when we are joyous, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, rests among us.

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