I am most grateful for my three-mile walk to shul on Shabbes. In an almost natural way, the act of walking becomes a meditative experience in which my mind focuses on the fragmented thoughts I entertain in preparation for conducting services at a small and quaint synagogue by the Chesapeake Bay.
Last Shabbat, when we read “ VAYCHI”- the closing chapters of Genesis, the Sabbath of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thirty-fifth Yahrzeit, two Midrashim floated in my mind and effortlessly coalesced to connect to Heschel’s writings. The spirit of Biblical Jacob wafted through Heschel’s words.
Genesis 49:1 informs us that “ Jacob called his sons and said: ’Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ “ Instead, Jacob speaks to each of his sons about the son’s character and special gifts. Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, quoting Midrash Rabbah, 98:2, explains: “He sought to reveal the end of days and the Presence of God departed from him and he began to say other things.”
Why did the divine Presence depart? One can assume that as a rule, given his elevated spiritual status, Jacob was embraced by God: but at this particular moment, he experienced God’s sudden disappearance. Perhaps the fear and anguish of imminent death was a temporary distraction.
The Midrash continues to flesh out this critical and dramatic experience .He asks his sons:
"Is there a blemish in my bed?” Is there a distortion of perception, a sense of anticipating strife and disunity in the future which clouds my vision of the divine?
“His sons reply: Hear O Israel (Jacob’s changed name), the Lord our God the Lord is One. Just as there is nothing in our heart but oneness, so there is nothing in your heart but oneness. Then Jacob exclaimed: Blessed be the Name of His kingdom’s glory forever!”
The Schechinah, the Divine Presence , was retrieved. Once reassured that the future of the Jewish people would not crumble into fragments of disunity, quarreling and contentiousness, but that his descendents would strive for oneness, for unity and harmony in the world, Jacob was able to acknowledge God’s reality and the Schechinah was restored to his consciousness. According to the Sefat Emet, a 19th century Hassidic commentary, “to reveal the end” in fact meant to communicate the idea of ultimate harmony. Thus according to this thinker, Jacob did succeed in exposing the meaning of the future of the Jewish people by establishing his renewed faith in the ultimate harmony of all things under the Oneness of God.
Heschel links up the notion of God’s unity with the mystery of the universe and the kinship shared by all human beings. ”The intuition of that all-pervading unity has often inspired man with a sense of living in cosmic brotherhood with all beings…We are all-men, stars, flowers, birds- assigned to the same cast, rehearsing for the same inexplicable drama. We all have a mystery in common-the mystery of being.”
The Divine Presence becomes a reality in the context of human Oneness that embraces the harmony and love of all creatures of the One God.
A tantalizing “gematria”, an interpretation based on the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, reinforces the intimate intertwining of unity and love as manifestations of the Divine. “Echad”-One or Unique- has the numerical equivalence of 13.”Ahavah”-Love-likewise contains the sum of 13.Together, they add up to 26 which is the numerical value of the “tetragrammaton”- the original name of God- “Yud Heh Vav Heh.”
A second spiritual avenue by which the Schechinah re-appeared to Jacob is pointed to in the following Midrash: “ This is like the king’s friend who was about to depart the world, and his children gathered around his bed. He said to them: ‘Come, I shall reveal to you the secrets of the king.’
He raised his eyes and saw the king. Then he told them: Beware of the glory of the king.
So Jacob raised his eyes and saw the Shechinah standing over him. He told his sons-Beware (BE AWARE) of the glory of God.” (Genesis Rabbah 98:3)
The awareness of the divine is not equal to or a prerequisite for the forecasting of the future’s secrets. The future belongs to God. The Divine Presence that we can behold is the glory, the wonder and awe of the world. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things are not only what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something else. Awe is a sense for the transcendence…It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine…”(Who is Man? P.88-89)
While many mystics believe in “gigul neshamot’-the transmigration of souls- most of us are highly skeptical. In a compelling sense, however, Heschel’s life and work reflect a piece of the soul of Jacob our Father. Abraham Joshua Heschel illumined our lives with the soul of Abraham’s allness and hessed (compassion); he likewise blessed us with a ‘Jacobean’ understanding of how to perceive the divine around us, through oneness and wonder.
For all this and more, we are ever grateful.