The Flour of Life

Parashat Vayechi  

We are nearing the end of a bitter season of political transition. Emotion fueled words have sputtered and flowed and exploded in exchanges between brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and parents and children and friends and neighbors and strangers. Fellow countrymen continue to fight face to face and through electronic media about values and policy and truth and hope and fear and the convictions we have about the character of our leaders and our nation.  On occasion, the words we have heard and read and spoken have been disciplined and refined and at other times, they have slipped and spewed without being shaped by higher minded thoughts.

Words hold the potential to create, activate, heal, and transform the world and the souls of people, as well as the power to incite and insult and demean and destroy. Words can be used for a blessing and words can be used for a curse.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, as Israel/Jacob nears the end of his life, he blesses his son Joseph and, of particular note, he bestows a special blessing upon his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh.  "With you, Israel will bless, saying, 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh’.” So began the tradition that continues to this day at the Shabbat tables of many observant Jews who bless their sons with these same words before the kiddush.

Of all the possible words of blessing that a father could bestow upon his child, why these sons of Joseph? What special merit did they have to warrant such an honor? The rabbis say that it is because they never fought and they maintained their spiritual values outside the land of Israel, their grandfather. Perhaps it is also because they represented to Israel the continuation of love. Not only was Joseph the beloved lost son by Jacob’s true love, Rebecca, but his effective resurrection from the death reported and confirmed by his brothers must have been experienced as a divine miracle. Ephraim and Manasseh are a symbol that through the darkest of times, the children of Israel will survive.  

Last Tuesday, I was honored to play a role in the continuation of the chain that stretches all the way back to Avraham Avinu as the sandek (the holder of the baby) at the brit milah of Graham Hayim Villarreal, son of Rabbi Devin Maimon and Rebbetzin Pamela Villarreal.  I looked into the face of the beautiful baby on my lap and witnessed in his sweet eyes and then his red clinched face his induction into a world of love and a world of pain, a world of tradition and a world of blessing. Immediately following the brit, he was blessed with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”.

I have been thinking about my experience with Graham Hayim Villarreal all day.  I thought about the meaning of his Hebrew name, Hayim. Life. And looked up the translation of his last name. Villarreal means Royal Village. Life in the Royal Village. Nice. But what about Graham? I looked it up. “Unsifted whole wheat flour.” Hmmm. In Hebrew, flour is kemach.  There is a text which reads, Im ein kemach ein Torah, Im ein Torah, ein kemach. Without flour there is no Torah. Without Torah, there is no flour. And the holy meaning of Graham Hayim Villarreal’s name comes into fullness: The Flour of Life in the Royal Village.

 Without flour there is no Torah.

Some Torah:

Vayechi recounts the end of the Joseph story, the end of Joseph’s life, the end of Israel’s life and the end of the Book of Bereshit.

Reflections on the Life of Joseph: audacious dreamer and interpreter of dreams, thrown into a pit of jealousy, sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual assault, thrown into a dungeon where he interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker:

The cupbearer who dreamed of filling Pharaoh’s cup would be restored to his position.

 And it was so.

The baker, who dreamed of birds eating Pharaoh’s bread would be put to death.

And it was so.

For two years, Joseph languished in the prison until Pharaoh’s spirit became tormented by his dreams. Seven sickly cows devoured seven robust cows. Seven ears of corn scorched by the east wind devoured seven plump ears of corn. None of Pharaoh’s sages or necromancers could help him find peace. It was only when the cupbearer remembered Joseph to Pharaoh and Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream - 7 bountiful years followed by 7 years of famine - that the spirit of Pharaoh was released from torment.

Pharaoh elevated Joseph to become his Senior Advisor and gave him full power to prepare for environmental collapse and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

So Joseph gathered and stored up huge quantities of grain. This Flour of Life in the Royal Village would ultimately save not only the people of Egypt, but the people of surrounding nations, including the Children of Israel, who survive to this day and age.

A day when beautiful babies become new links in a chain in the age of a new Pharaoh who prepares to take the throne.

And what kind of Pharaoh will he be? As we have experienced though the cupbearer and the baker, he who glorifies Pharaoh shall live, he who takes away from Pharaoh’s glory shall be destroyed. But we have also learned that Pharaoh is willing to let a falsely accused prisoner languish in jail, until his spirit is tormented - and only then will he relinquish power to he who can assuage his anguish.

It is not difficult to imagine that this Shabbat, or perhaps next Shabbat just prior to an official inaugural ball, that the new President of the United States, freshly sworn in with a hand over a Bible and an oath of lofty words, will look across the table as his observant son-in-law and Senior Advisor places his hands upon the heads of his sons to bless them with the enduring words of Israel, “May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.”

A blessing is nothing more or less than a prayer of hope. It is, perhaps, in poor taste to associate and appropriate the name of a beautiful new baby to make meaning out of Torah. It is, perhaps, naive and unwise to pray for a scenario in which the spirit of the President becomes troubled and can only be calmed by a senior advisor who is a child of Israel with a son named Joseph. A scenario in which the senior advisor is imbued with the wisdom of Joseph to foresee a climate catastrophe and the political and operational savvy to prepare so that we all may live. In the face of power, it can feel silly to hope that a senior advisor will remember the words that are sung every Shabbat in the kiddush about coming out of Mitzrayim - and the words that follow in Exodus that we should not oppress the foreigner because we too were foreigners in the land of Egypt. But it is perhaps the least we can do in times of fear and uncertainty to shape our words for the sake of life. It is, after all, what Joseph did when his brothers feared that he would punish them for their evil treatment of him. But that is not what Joseph did. Joseph chose to bless them by saying it was God’s will that they threw him into the pit so that not only they but so many others would survive.

We live in times of darkness - of scorched wind coming from the east and uncertainty about what the future holds. In next week’s parasha, Shemot, right after the inauguration, we read, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” But we also live in times of the light in a new baby’s eyes which brings inspiration and hope and all the cause to believe that our future, though tinged with passing moments of intense pain, will bring love and wonder and wisdom and meaning into the world.  Let our lives and our words be for a blessing and let us remember, like Joseph, that even in the pit, the dream of the sun and moon and the stars still live for, even when the hearts of men turn dark, the will of the Source of Creation is for life.