A D'var Torah for January 13th 2017
Liminal spaces are the transitions between two safe, or at least known, things, times, or places. In the Jewish Tradition and in many other religious and spiritual traditions, liminal spaces or boundaries are understood to be fraught with dangerous and powerful forces.
We can find one of the most well known biblical examples of the dangers inherent in liminal spaces in the story of our patriarch, Jacob. As he journeys to meet his brother, Esau, the only danger that he encounters is on the bank of a river that divides two territories. It is in this transitional space, this “in between” space, that he is attacked by and wrestles with an unknown figure.
Our tradition teaches us that we mark doorways with mezuzot because we are commanded to inscribe those words onto our doorposts, but if we squint, we can see that mezuzot look and feel a lot like the amulets that other traditions and even many within the Jewish tradition have used to ward off evil forces and even demons. After all, when the Israelite slaves are warned about the final plague, how do they protect themselves from the Angel of Death? By marking their doorposts with blood. This divinely approved bit of magic supercharges the liminal space of the doorway and transforms it from a dangerous space to a protective boundary.
And, it is not only in physical spaces where the dangers and uncertainty of liminality exist. For example, when parents are expecting a baby, they exist for months in the liminal space of pregnancy. Jewish superstitions evolved over time to protect the expectant mother and fetus as they exist in this state of “potential” for months on end. Jewish parents’ shying away from setting up nurseries or celebrating with baby showers are contemporary manifestations of the long-held, Jewish belief that by drawing attention to the potential blessing of a child’s birth, you are also risking drawing attention from evil spirits.
In our Torah portion this week, Va-y’hi, and in our Haftarah portion which comes from 1 Kings, we are invited into powerful and intimate moments in two families’ stories. After living remarkable lives, Jacob and King David are approaching the most unknowable transition as both men are preparing to die. In the face of this eventuality, both fathers summon their children in order to share some last bit of knowledge, insight, and in some cases criticism with those whom they are leaving behind.
Neither father’s speech is what we might expect it to be. Chapter 49 of Genesis opens with, “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O Sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father.” What follows are 24 verses of Jacob’s thoughts on his 12 sons. It is easy to imagine that Jacob had reached a point where he didn’t want to hold anything back, as some of his comments seem more cutting than helpful or loving.
“Reuben,” he says, “you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…”
“Dan shall be a serpent by the road, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider is thrown backward.”
King David’s final moments with his son, Solomon, are similarly unexpected. After opening with a beautiful reminder to Solomon of God’s promises and covenant, his tone shifts abruptly, and he begins to list the people that he hopes Solomon will kill in order to bring honor to David’s name.
David says to his son, “Further, you know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s forces, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether: he killed them, shedding blood of war… [and] staining the girdle of his loins and the sandals on his feet… So act in accordance with your wisdom, and see that his white hair does not go down to Sheol in peace.”
As I re-read these sections of the Tanakh to prepare for this Shabbat, my official, rabbinical reaction was, “Yeesh… didn’t anyone ever teach these guys how to say goodbye?” But, what I missed in my initial response and what I came to after thinking about it more and after reading various commentaries on these stories is that both of these men lived tumultuous, precarious lives filled with dangers both seen and unseen.
Jacob’s life was filled with tragedy. Some of this was of his own making- namely losing his brother and parents as he ran for his life after swindling his brother out of his birthright- but he also suffered greatly because of other people’s decisions. He lived through his family being torn apart and saw the almost miraculous return of his favorite son. And, in his last moments, he addressed each of his sons with honesty- attempting to provide each one with insight into his own character.
David lived as a warrior who had fought and killed for most of his life. Even within his kingdom, he had many enemies, and his last words to Solomon, while significantly more bloody than we might expect, are an attempt of a dying king to ensure that his son’s rule would be stable.
Both of these fathers knew that they were not the only ones who were approaching a liminal, transitional, and dangerous space. They knew that their sons would be forced to become something new- taking on adulthood, maturity, and the responsibility for their people in new and startling ways. These fathers knew that, with their passing, their sons would be forced into liminal spaces of their own- full of potential dangers. And so, rather than seeing these as slightly unexpected or even tonally inappropriate last remarks, we should understand that these speeches were their last attempts at preparing their children for their next, dangerous journeys.
These stories felt particularly resonant this week, as in this country, we are in a liminal space. As President Obama said in his speech on Tuesday, the peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of democracy. But, that does not mean that this transition is less fraught than any other that our tradition has identified. We have already seen that there are, even in our contemporary world, evil forces- voices filled with hate and divisiveness- who have found these vulnerable spaces and risen up- louder and louder. It is all too easy to be paralyzed by the appearance of these dangers, and yet, by their very definition, liminal spaces are not meant for prolonged stay.
We must move forward into this next chapter of our lives as individuals and as a country, and so we will.
President Obama quoted George Washington, an American patriarch, in his farewell address, but it was President Obama’s own words that I found most moving. And, when he told us to, “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it,” I heard contemporary and admittedly more comforting echoes of Jacob and David’s urging those whom they led to embrace the future and move toward it fully prepared.
Yes, liminal spaces are dangerous, but they are also transformative. It is on the bank of the river that Jacob was attacked by an unknown force. But, it is also on that same river bank that he showed himself to be powerful, a force in his own right. It is in that dangerous space that Jacob became Israel, and when he arrived on the other side of that river, he was a new and changed man.
This week, we transition from Genesis to Exodus, and we watch as one president leaves office and another enters. We walk toward this future knowing that we can continue to make a difference in the world. We will keep moving forward. We will keep working. We will keep believing.
And, in the face of any evil or hateful forces that attempt to use this transition to their own advantage, we will take a cue from our ancestors and will rely on a little religiously-approved magic to protect us. We will join hands, and we will chant together, “Chazak. Chazak. V'nitchazek.” Be strong. Be strong. And, let us strengthen one another.