Sermon given by Jason Lever
7th January / 14th Tevet
It feels to me that we were just starting our Torah cycle the other day on Simchat Torah. Yet, time has flown, over the candles of Chanukah and into a new secular year, so that today we have reached the finale of Bereshit – of the Book of Genesis. God has guided the descendants of Abraham and Sara, and brought them to the land of Egypt, for reasons of economic necessity (famine) but more deeply as a requisite time of family reconciliation.
One theme of this Parasha that I’d like to share with you is that of liminality. I know, not a word we use every day and in fact I never really grasped what it meant until I was studying literary criticism a few years ago. One definition is a state of transition between one stage and the next. A common example of liminality is the short time between life and death, or between sleep and being awake. For our purposes, liminal can be understood as a state of transition between one stage and the next. Like an in-between state.
But before I go on, I have a question for you. What’s the connection between the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shul and the theme for this Parasha? Well, the most famous song in Rocky Horror is the Time Warp. A word from the 1950s, signifying any distortion of space-time, like a suspension that seems to occur in the progress of time. People and events from one age can be imagined to exist in another age. That pretty much seems liminal to me.
Music itself is sometimes said to provide a liminal experience – and we can ask Rabbi and Sara if it does, as they are going to see the show tonight! (Don’t worry choir, I won’t be requesting that we sing Adon Alom to the tune of the Time Warp, though I’m sure it could work….?).
One more definition of liminal from its Latin origins I’ll introduce is to mean threshold. So, to be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet.
So, how does this fit with our story in Vay’echi?
For one, a liminal space can be seen as the well-trodden trail between Egypt and Canaan, in both directions. From Canaan, Jacob’s home, left the delegation of brothers to Pharaoh seeking to buy food provisions; and then later, again, with their father and youngest brother, Benjamin, travelling to Egypt. In the other direction was the journey from Egypt on Jacob’s death back to Canaan, to bury him in the cave of Machpelah (the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites and is now venerated today in Hebron by the ultra-Orthodox as the main family vault of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs).
The passage preceding the one we leined today is a long piece of verse, termed Jacob’s Testament. In it, he recounts the past deeds and future destinies of each of his children – of those who would become the twelve tribes of Israel – and blesses them according to their merits, or otherwise. So, this moment in time for each of his children can be seen – in liminal terms – as a transition between major stages in their lives. A process of leaving behind an old identity (including what ten of them did to Joseph) and becoming something new (having been redeemed by him for largely better, future lives). From pre and post reconciliation with their wronged brother Joseph. And with the new, the family leadership baton passing from their deceased father Jacob to the next generation.
As Rabbi Plaut explains, only Judah and Joseph are addressed directly in Jacob’s Testament – described as “a brighter future rises before his inner eye… [and] this future is tied to Judah and Joseph”.
A state of liminality also implies undergoing a rite of passage, which can be perhaps read into another transition point for most of the brothers, and an uncertain one at that. From a point in time and place of re-established family unity after Joseph effects the reconciliation, to a situation in this Parasha that now their father is no longer alive, will Joseph turn against his brothers and seek vengeance, as Jacob no longer can act a guarantor of their safety? They fear that Joseph, with all those powers available to him with his high status in Pharaoh’s court, “will requite us all the evil which we did unto him”.
I began by saying that this Parasha is the end of our Torah reading in Genesis before beginning Shemot, Exodus, next week. A final example of a liminal point is shown by the last and first words from the two Books. The end of Genesis - “Joseph died aged 110 years. They embalmed him and he was put into a coffin in Egypt”. For Rabbi Reuven Hammer, these last sentences were not accidental nor meaningless, as it signals the beginning of enslavement which is the immediate prospect in store for Jacob’s children and families once a new Pharaoh regime and anti-Israelite policy was put in place. As Rabbi Hammer puts it, “They are all trapped in the coffin that is Egypt”. Now, right at the start of the Book of Exodus it says: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob”. This signals the emergence of Israel as a nation, even though the story of slavery under Egyptian rule comes next. As we know, by the time Exodus ends, the journey towards the Promised Land of Canaan and the destiny of the people of Israel to become their own nation-state entity and self-governing society is on the horizon.
This is one heck of a transition as our American friends would say. Encompassing some 400 years of enslavement in Egypt and then 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. But then it was certainly a major, collective rite of passage. That is a liminal transitioning across borders. And an experience of change that is both physical and spiritual, of place and mind.
Going by Arnold van Gennep who apparently invented the term liminal in the early 20th century, new social rules are commonly learned during the liminal phase, with strong, endearing, and creative bonds often developing between fellow initiates. Strong … Endearing… Creative… These seem to me to describe well the new generation of Israelites who emerged from their long, liminal journey. As we shall see over the next 3 to 4 months of Torah readings. Having left Canaan, we spend the next four books trying to return.