Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Yaakov Never Died, and Some Gospel: Two Generations, Two Songs

This week’s Parsha is all about Yaakov’s passing away in Egypt. I always enjoy the moment when Yaakov, the namesake of Israel, is mummified by the Egyptian doctors, and all of Egypt comes out to lament his passing. It’s a great reminder of the way Judaism bounces back and forth between its unique rituals and the rituals of the cultures in which they lived. The Talmud quips about Yaakov’s death:

Rav Nachman and Rav Yitzhak were dining together. Said Rav Nachman to Rav Yitzhak: Say something meaningful!
Rav Yitzhak said: Rabbi Yohanan taught: “Yaakov Avinu (our father) didn’t die!”
Said Rav Nachman to Rav Yitzchak: What? Was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized and the mummifiers mummified and the buriers buried?
He responded: We are simply expounding from scripture, for Jeremiah (30:10) says: “Do not fear, my servant Yaakov… for I will redeem you from afar and your offspring from the lands of their captivity” – Yaakov is analogized to his offspring. As long as his offspring are alive, he too is alive.
(Babylonian Talmud Taanit 5b)
רב נחמן ור' יצחק היו יושבים בסעודה.
א"ל רב נחמן לר' יצחק: יאמר לנו אדוני מילה!...
אמר לו: הכי אמר רבי יוחנן: יעקב אבינו לא מת.
אמר לו: וכי בכדי ספדו ספדנייא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא?
אמר לו: מקרא אני דורש שנאמר (ירמיהו ל) "ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה' ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים" - מקיש הוא לזרעו, מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים (תלמוד בבלי תענית ה:)

This Talmudic text is the inspiration to a Jewish song that captured the imagination of an entire Jewish generation: “Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai! The Jewish People are alive, Our Father is still alive!” sang Shlomo Carlebach in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a brilliant song: Taking Joseph’s urgent question to his brothers from last week’s Parsha: “העוד אבינו חי?” – “Is our father still alive?” (Gen 45:3), Shlomo turned the question into an answer: “Yes! Our father is still alive, WE are still alive!”
For many Jews of the boomer generation, the song encapsulates a pivotal aspect of their Jewish identity. The song resonated so powerfully in the 1960’s and 1970’s because it was constantly edified by current events: When Shlomo sang this song about Soviet Jews who experienced Communist identity effacement, it became the anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement across the Jewish world. For the children of Holocaust survivors, it was a real question: so many of us have been killed, will we really survive? In the months before 1967 everyone was sure that Israel was surely to be destroyed, with citizens digging preparatory graves in Jerusalem’s Sacher park and jokes about how “the last Israeli Jew should turn off the light when he leaves”. When the existential threat turned into a miraculous, earth-shattering victory, young Jews could rally and sing: “Am Yisrael Chai!”

For me, this song is kitsch. With all due respect to the enormously significant, painful and dramatic moments of 20th century Jewish history, for most of my generation, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” is a tacky, overstated, and even self-indulgent thing to do. I’m over simplifying things, but while I’m not ignoring the fragility of Jewish existence, I am trying to point to a sociological reality that no amount of Holocaust education can overturn: the reality of the 60’s and 70’s was not the reality of the 80’s and 90’s. Shlomo’s song doesn’t have the same psychological effect, because the crisis was never one we experienced in the first person: “Am Yisrael Chai” was never a question, only an answer.
For the previous generation Jewish existence was primarily about, well, existence. Being alive, being allowed to freely – and sovereignly – celebrate our identities, rituals and communities. But for the next generation, mere continuity is not enough. We want to be about something. My teacher David Hartman called this “Auschwitz or Sinai”. Are we going to be simply about existing (Auschwitz), or are we going to give content to our existence (Sinai). Sinai is about the idea ofmitzva, of action, that redeems us from the egocentricity of our own existence and propels us towards having a mission in the world (what that mission is, we can argue some other day).

Some lament this generational divide. I’d rather be productive: If we can’t sing “Od Avinu Chai”, what song about “Our Father” can we sing? This brings me to a lesser known Shlomo Carlebach tune, a rare recording of him singing the great American spiritual “I’m on my way to Canaan land.” It too is highly relevant to this week’s parsha:
Yaakov, dying in Egypt, forces his sons to swear they’ll bury him in Canaan, the land that was promised to his ancestors. Yaakov is the only patriarch to have spent most of his life outside the land of Canaan: His best years are wasted in Lavan’s house, his last days in Egypt. His life story is about someone who is constantly on the way, not there yet, but adamant that he’ll get there. His dying wish is to arrive.
This in itself is a message worth learning from Yaakov: the ability to see that even when life takes me to very different destinations, I won’t lose sight of the promised land.
Which brings me to the spiritual. Shlomo recorded this in the ‘60’s, and I love it for its simplicity, but also for its tenacity: “I’m on my way to Canaan’s land!” goes the spiritual. And if that doesn’t sound Jewish enough to you, there’s a stiff necked part that follows: “If sister don’t go, won’t hinder me; If sister don’t go, won’t hinder me… I’m on the way, yes my Lord, I’m on the way!”. Those are the words, but you really want to listen to the song (unfortunately, I couldn’t find my copy of Shlomo’s recording, but better yet, here’s a link to the great blue-grass gospel duo Flatt and Scruggs’s rendition).
There is no solution here to the larger questions of Jewish identity and Jewish continuity. But there is a strong statement about process. For a younger generation, Jewish existence cannot be about mere existence. It must be about a commandment (Lech Lecha!), a journey, a meaningful transformation. This shouldn’t be a self-indulgent personal journey, but rather one that starts with the self and grows out to community, society, and the world. To paraphrase the Talmudic saying we started off with: “As long as his offspring are on their way, Yaakov is on his way", or in the words of the song: "Sweet Lord, we're on our way...