• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

Theme your year

Parashat Vayechi 5781


2020 is a year I could leave in the rear-view mirror. In many ways, beginning this new year with Shabbat allows for a perspective that is refreshing, because with Shabbat’s gift of renewal, we have the opportunity to set kavanot, intentionality, to the way we go about our weekend, our coming week, month and year. Tonight, in looking at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, I want to reflect on what it means to live with intentionality.


The Torah portion opens: "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years, and the span of Jacob’s life was 147 years." In this week’s Torah Portion, the one that closes out the book of Genesis, tells about Jacob’s final days and death, we begin with the key word vayechi, and Jacob lived. The biblical authors do not emphasize his body failing him or his impending death; rather, they first note that he is—vayechi—living. Such is the Jewish perspective: we always place life and blessing before us first. This was the case when describing our matriarch Sarah’s passing as well. Earlier in Genesis, when we learn of her death, the Biblical authors write, “Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.”[1] This distinction is significant: death is inevitable, but noting and celebrating life first is a deliberate choice we make. The words we select matter.


Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Chabad Lubavitch’s Rebbe, someone I’m not often to quote, taught how one could focus on life on a daily basis by placing attention on the words we choose. Scheerson was committed to using “nonnegative language… He avoided the word ‘undertake’ lest it trigger an association with the word ‘undertaker.’… No matter how great the pressure to finish a project, he never referred to the due date as a ‘deadline.’ Once the word ‘deadline’ is removed from one’s vocabulary, one possible alternative is ‘due date,’ the forbidden expression connoting death and ‘due date’ connoting birth.”[2]


Just as Schneerson always looked for the nonnegative word choice, and affirmation of the preciousness of life, the biblical authors did similarly: Vayechi Ya’akov, and Jacob lived. “This term is an apt description of the years Jacob spent reunited with his beloved son (Joseph),” writes bible scholar Nahum Sarna, “for something had died within him when Joseph disappeared, and his ‘spirit revived’ with the knowledge that he was alive and well in Egypt. Jacob had thought this would be a brief happiness, the final experience of his life. Instead, he has enjoyed many more years.”[3] By placing life first, deemphasizing death’s inevitable knock at the door, we—the biblical authors, commentators, and contemporary readers alike—reflect the value of life that we sense for ourselves and for our loved ones. If we were to live each day as if it were our last, as the saying goes, we would not be able to sustain such intensity. Such an attitude is also fatalistic. Why endeavor at all if today may be our last? If each day were my last on earth, I do not think I would spend it by doing dishes and responding to emails. I would intend to spend it differently, with the people I love and who love me.


The predominate Jewish attitude entices us to seek contentment with the portion given us that day, with the blessings that pervaded our lives prior, then perhaps people will say even on our last day, vayechi, and he lived. We do not seek to deny the challenges we have faced, or disregard the trials we have overcome, but to seek a fullness of joy that comes from knowing our race is well run.


We achieve such an outlook by being clear about our intention. What better time to think about that intention than on New Years Day: the day that many of us set resolutions. Today is all about goals, betterment, the pursuit of our own perfection. If you are a fan of New Years resolution setting, good for you. I encourage you to continue on that path. But the common critique of resolutions and goal setting is that they have energy for a time, only fizzling as January turns to February, as winter lingers, and the doldrums set in. If resolution setting fails us so often it should not be surprising. After all, it takes anywhere between 18 and 254 days for a person to form a new habit.[4] Especially as we close out 2020, what resolutions can we set: we have already had our fill of sourdough starters and knitting projects.


To this, a different frame may be helpful. Podcasters Myke Hurley and CGP Grey are advocates of setting a theme for the year. On their podcast Cortex, they go into great depth about why goals are silly, that we are better suited to think in terms of themes. “Instead of resolutions, we set an overall idea of how we would like to approach each year or season,” they argue. “This becomes almost like a guiding principle for our work and/or personal lives for that period.”[5] The theme is an intention, a kavanah . One year, both Hurley and Grey set a theme of “The Year of Less.” For one of them, that meant fewer commitments and less travel, for the other it meant no new projects and finishing what was already started. Theming your year is an act of aspiration, and affirmation that vayechi, this year we will live. It has an eye toward the future, rather than lamenting the past or feeling stuck in the present rut, the theme invites us to transform our rut into the feeling of being in the groove. Identifying a kavanah theme for the year, one that can encapsulate many aspirations, opens up possibilities. It allows for specific goal setting inside of the theme, while committing us to a more flexible mindset toward what this year can be, especially when we live with uncertainty. Instead of watching our resolutions fizzle, coupled with the anger, remorse, guilt, and frustration that is sure to come with it, attaching our attention to a kavanah for the year invites us to embrace an open mindset. Just as in meditation when we notice our mind straying, we bring ourselves back to attention around the breath, with a theme, if things begin to stray, you have that intention, and you can come back to it. Intentionality allows for course correction when 2021 throws us for a curve.


As we close out a year that has been unlike any other, and look to set a course for today and each day after, I find myself drawn to the idea of setting a kavanah for the year. In so doing, perhaps we can affirm vayechi, and he lived, rather than we just survived. As a long-term optimist, taking this view opens new windows of possibility. But, reality also argues against the theme. I recently asked some close friends about this idea of setting a theme, and each of them responded similarly: How about a year of survival? For these friends, just getting through the pandemic and economic crisis is enough. Getting the vaccine, finding that we can return to some normalcy of life without the constant pressures that the pandemic presents would be welcome. Can we expect to focus on our internal lives when so much around us is not okay?


Because so much around is upsetting, we have to make sure that we are paying attention to our internal lives. I can go along with what these friends are saying. Just getting through this is enough. Always striving for perfection can be an exhausting enterprise, whether it is expressed as a New Years resolution or a yearly theme. This I affirm: doing what is sufficient is a good in its own right. We do not need to be the world’s best grocery shopper. Getting food into the house and onto the table is sufficient. Still, attitude and outlook matter, because it informs how we each move through our world. In Genesis, both Sarah and Jacob experienced plenty of heartache in their lives. And the biblical authors could have lamented the sadness and challenge that came their way. Whether we are talking about biblical characters our ourselves, the expectation is the same: we cannot abdicate ourselves from menschlikeit just because the going has been tough. That we set an intention for how we want to approach others and our world may be the very thing that allows us to tolerate uncomfortable situations and inconvenient circumstances.


When we approach our daily living with our feet planted in reality and an eye toward the future, then we can claim for ourselves vayechi. “Teach me to number my days, that I may attain a heart of wisdom,” the psalmist says. Each and every day is an opportunity to set an intention, a kavanah, for ourselves, and insodoing in the fullness of our days perhaps we can develop a wisdom for ourselves and for others.


Our patriarch Jacob understands this in how he behaves in this week’s Parashah. The Talmudic and Midrashic literature often calls Jacob Yisrael Sava, Old Israel. Why do we distinguish Jacob as old? As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes, “Jacob was the first patriarch to establish direct communication with his grandchildren…. Abraham and Isaac (Sarah and Rebecca) transmitted their spiritual heritage to their children, but not to their grandchildren.”[6] Yisrael Sava, Old Jacob chooses to bless his grandchildren as well. He “leapt over the gulf of generations and transmitted the great (tradition) of Abraham directly to (his grandchildren) Ephraim and Manasseh…. How appropriate, therefore, that our people be called Israel or Jacob, for it was he who created the community which ensures Jewish continuity.”[7]


Jacob set an intention in how he interacted with his grandchildren. By passing blessings to them directly, he communicated the foundations for lasting tradition. He describe the potential for the spiritual life and what it offered not only to his children, but beyond that as well. His was a vision that surpassed the injunction to teach it diligently to our children, alone. In such a manner, vayechi, Jacob lived his final days with tenacity.


Such is a model, I believe, for each of us as we enter into 2021. Now is not the time to do only what is sufficient. We need to meet the mark, but we also need to surpass that. Scientists and doctors developed and implemented a vaccine for a novel virus in record time. That is surpassing sufficiency. For 2021 to be a year of blessings, we need to be reality based. We need to have weeks where we are in the dumps, where we mourn losses—the loss of thousands of lives daily, the loss of regular life as we know and enjoy it. And, we need to live. Tonight, we each need to declare for ourselves vayechi. I argue one way we can do that is by setting a theme for this year, not just letting it be a year to pass us by, but for us to define what we determine it to be for us. 2021 is open sea. It is now up to us to set our course.


May 2021, this year, pregnant with potential, be a year of worth, a year of health, a year of meaning, a year of tenacity, a year of less and a year of more, most significantly a year of blessings for each of us, for our families, for our our neighbors, for our community, for Israel, for humanity. May we each continue in 2021 m’chayil l’chayil, from strength to strength.


[1]: Genesis 23:1.


[2]: Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: the life and teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the most influential rabbi in modern history (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 113.


[3]: JPS Torah Commentary, Sarna on Genesis 47:28, 323.


[4]: “How Long Does It Take for a New Behavior to Become Automatic? (https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-form-a-habit)” Healthline, October 24, 2019. Accessed December 31, 2020.


[5]: https://www.thethemesystem.com/


[6]: Soloveitchik on Genesis 48:5.


[7]: ibid.


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