What are the things in life that you never imagined you would experience?
This past week, as we ushered in the year 2020, I could not help but feel nostalgic for the past. As I scanned through old photos of my 19-year-old self celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2000, I was struck with amazement and wonder at how the last twenty years have passed. So much has unfolded, yet it feels like a flash.
Twenty years ago, I never would have imagined that I’d be where I am now. If you had told me then that I’d be a rabbi working at Beit T’Shuvah, I would have laughed at you. Back then I had this strange belief that I would not live past my twenties; that life, with all its chaos and tragedy, would consume me well before my time. So I focused on pursuing pleasure in all its forms.
But eventually it became clear even to me that the emptiness that I tried to fill with pleasure would never be satisfied. No matter what itch was scratched, my existential angst continued to surface. I would ask myself, “What am I doing with my life? If death comes, is this the life I want to have lived?”
In this week’s parashah, VaYechi, we read about Jacob settling his household prior to his death. When Joseph learns of his father’s failing health, he brings his two sons to greet their grandfather and receive a blessing. What is striking to me is Jacob’s words immediately prior to blessing his grandchildren and favorite son:
And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well” (Genesis 48:11).
Jacob, who mourned for the loss of Joseph for twenty years, has now spent the last seventeen years of his life reunited with Joseph and his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Jacob embraces and kisses his grandchildren in near-disbelief, and I can just hear him exclaim as he looks up at Joseph: To see your face again! Never would I have imagined this could be a possibility, but now God has granted me this opportunity to be here with you and your children too! Whoa!
The Hebrew in the verse says, “Lo pillalti” which is the same Hebrew root (פלל), which means to pray – l’hitpallel. In fact, this is the first appearance of that root in the Torah, and commentators over the years have attempted to clarify its meaning. Rashi writes:
Lo pillalti means: I HAD NOT CONTEMPLATED — ‘I had never dared to cherish the thought that I would again see your face.’ Pillalti [therefore] is an expression for thinking.
What I believe Rashi and Jacob’s words are expressing is that prayer can be understood as an exercise in dreaming. An exercise in imagining a life beyond your wildest imagination.
Again, what are the things in life that you never imagined you would experience?
Prayer, therefore, gives me the opportunity to imagine a life beyond my twenties. Just as I had a false assumption that my life would end early, now prayer can open for me the hope to live a great life well into old age.
What are the things we hope for but prevent ourselves from dreaming?
For me, the more I am able to allow God into my life, the more brokenness is healed. The more my emptiness is filled with God’s presence, the more sacred and meaningful life I live. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz articulates this in his book, The Thirteen Petalled Rose: “Only when a man can relate his inner center to God as the first and foremost and only reality, only then does his self take on meaning” (p109-110). Therefore, a core task we must strive for is to find God in our lives: we must engage in a personal relationship with a Higher Power. And, I believe Jacob’s blessing guides us to this idea:
And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day—
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth” (Genesis 48:15-16).
Life isn’t only about fulfilling our desires and pursuing pleasure; it’s about surrendering to the life God puts before us. It’s about connecting to the paths and ways that our ancestors trail-blazed before us and being willing to be guided by God, as members of God’s flock.
If anything is possible, what do we really want to live for?
Jacob’s blessing does not say bad things will not happen; rather there will be a guiding angel to redeem us from evil. Our task is to be open to and take the support of God’s outstretched hand when life throws us into the pits. And when we do, lo pillalti – Never would I have imagined where my life has taken me!
I wonder what the next twenty years will bring. My hope is that we can remember to surrender to the unfolding of life and trust the journey that awaits us, our families, our community, and the world.