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Vayehi, Barnacles and Blessings

Judaism categorically believes that people can change, that they can examine their ways and correct their failings. We do not believe in fate. We contend that our destiny remains in our hands. Otherwise the High Holidays, and the centrality of their message of repentance and turning, would be meaningless. We believe in the possibility of self-renewal. And yet people behave as if we think otherwise.

John W. Gardner once observed in quoting another author: “’The barnacle is confronted with an existential decision about where it's going to live. Once it decides it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.’ End of quote. For a good many of us, it comes to that.”

This week we read about the blessings Jacob offers to each of his children. “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.’ The more we read in the portion the more their destinies appear pre-ordained. Their fates seem bound to prior deeds. His blessings mirror popular sentiment that our character is unchanging.

To his eldest Jacob proclaims: “Reuben, you are my first-born, the might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and excelling in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…” To his youngest Jacob says: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he consumes the foe, and in the evening he divides the spoil.“ (Genesis 49)

This is not the Torah we teach. This is not the tradition we uphold. We are not barnacles!

And what was Reuben’s sin? He slept with his father’s concubine. One sin, one mistake and Reuben’s destiny is shattered. His good fortune is reversed. His father’s blessing becomes a curse. Where is the forgiveness? Where is the opportunity for change? Jacob echoes popular belief. He gives voice to the fact that too often we bury our heads in the sand, we blame the machinations of others, we offer excuses about circumstances and complain about the troubles of fate. We act as if our destiny is written in stone. Reuben is destined for no good, Jacob declares.

But we are not our forefather’s sons. And we need not be barnacles. Our destiny is not to be found in the stars. No matter how terrible, and seemingly unforgiveable, the sin we can give shape to a new story. Our lives can be shaped by our own hands. They are not written by parents or grandparents. They are not ordained by prior generations.

Where is this Torah to be discovered? Where is the belief that we can rewrite our future? It is found in Jacob’s sons as well. It is discovered when they turn and stand up for their youngest brother Benjamin. They do not allow him to be thrown in jail as they did years earlier with Joseph. It is uncovered when Judah says in effect: “Take me instead.” This is the model of repentance we teach. We can change. We can make a turn. We can redeem even the most desperate of circumstances. We can reshape our lives and renew our souls.

John Gardner again:
Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.
We need not live as if we are barnacles. Blessings are to be found in our very own hands.