There is something broken in each of us. The human brain is wired so that negative feelings are felt twice as strongly as positive ones. Fear feels twice as fearsome as love feels wholesome. Loss is felt twice as much as gain. Failure feels twice as painful to our souls as accomplishment feels soothing to ourselves. Whatever your view of the world, whether we believe in God or not, there is something inside of each and everyone of us that feels that something is not quite right. That’s because when we see the best of us – when we are inspired by love or feeling great after an accomplishment – we soar. But those soaring moments never last; they don’t stick in our memories. Not like when we fail. When everything falls apart, when we miss the mark or our shame comes to the surface or we see how bad we can be to each other, we are just crushed. Those negative feelings – they stick with us. Why is it that the feeling of joy and being loved lasts a few moments, but the feeling of trauma can last forever?
There is something broken in each of us.
I have a file in my desk drawer of all the thank you notes from friends and congregants over the course of my work. I keep them there not because I want to show them to a colleague or save them posterity. I keep them there so that on my worst days, when I feel broken, I can read them and remind myself that I am worthy of gratitude and make a difference in the world. I have one-note days where I don’t feel so badly, but I also have three and four-note days, where I have to read that many to kickstart my soul again. All of us, no matter how great things can be, still have our four-note days.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, knows the human heart through all of our brokenness. In it are stories of ambition and shame, of love and jealousy, and of the beauty of human connection. No other book of the Torah has as much personal narrative as Genesis. Exodus tells a national story. Leviticus tells no stories. Numbers is filled power struggles as a nation is born. Deuteronomy is Moses’ dream for a future. No other book tells the personal story of human connection, brokenness and blessing like Genesis.
As the Book of Genesis comes to a close, as it does this week in parashat Vayechi, we find the last of the founders, Jacob, coming to the end of his life. He has grown ill as his strength is leaving him, and he summons his children in order to bless them. As he approaches death, his mortal fear overtakes him. He calls his children forth and musters his last strength and says, “Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come.” (Gen. 49:1)
Yet Jacob, like every parent at the end of his or her life, cannot prescribe a living reality of which he or she is not a part. The rabbis echo this idea over and over again summed up by the Talmud: “Jacob wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons but the Shekhina departed from him.”(Pesachim 56a) What the rabbis see in this moment is Jacob’s personal exile. Remember that he lost his wife Rachel and thought at one time that he lost Joseph. Now he will die in Egypt, the Torah’s location of quintessential exile. He asks, “Did God depart from me because it was something I had done?” As his life and this book both flow to their final words, the rabbis see in it the darkness that shakes the soul when all that was promised has fallen apart.
He feels alone, broken and without God.
Jacob’s terror is our terror. Whether you believe in God or not, It’s easy to look upon your life and see the brokenness of the world and say “this is all there is.” It’s even easier to feel alone in your feelings, all it takes is for one person to turn their back on you to feel like you live in your own personal exile. These feelings are strong and can shape your sense of the world. We are wired to go into the dark places.
There is something broken in each of us.
The negativity is fierce, but as Genesis closes we have to remember its opening. God looks out upon the empty chaos and decided to not be alone. The world does not have to exist. The Torah did not have to be written. The world in the Jewish view of it, begins with a choice, an incendiary choice to look out at what is and say this is not what has to be. The first choice in the Torah is God’s choice to create, to look upon the darkness and say “let there be light.” (Gen. 1:3) Which means that no matter how dark it looks, no matter how chaotic the world is, no matter how alone and broken you feel, you are never alone. The world is one with God. You are one with God.
At his darkest moment when the covenant feels at stake, when he is in exile, when he feels that God has abandoned him, it is the love of his children that reminds him of where his family comes from. They remind him that at the end, you must think of the beginning. Your future emerges from the past. The Talmud relates that when Jacob felt his lowest, his sons said to him, “Just as there is nothing in your heart but oneness, so there is nothing in our hearts but oneness.”
Like a thank you note from the past, Jacob’s fear is abated by love and gratitude. The promise of the covenant is that it can never be broken. You emerged from the dreams of others, and created by Creator, all of whom decided it was not good to be alone. Even in your loneliest moments, in your darkest exile, when the book seems to be coming to an end, there is that first light of creation calling you home.