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Jacob’s Bones

And the spirt of Jacob, ther father, revived. And Israel (Jacob) said: It is enough. Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die. And Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheva and offered sacrifices to the God of his father, Issac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said “Jacob, Jacob!” And he said “Here I am”. And God said “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” (Gen 45:27-46:3)

And the time drew near for Israel to die, and he called his son Joseph and said to him… Act towards me with with loving-kindness and truth. Do not bury me in Egypt.Rather let me lie with my fathers. Carry my bones away from Egypt and bury me in the grave of my ancestors. (Gen 47:29-30)

This blog is called Jacob’s bones because the story of Jacob’s bones is a metaphor for the reason I started this blog. These last few weeks have been weeks of upheaval for my country, Israel. Slowly but surely the country is coming to realize that one simply can’t hand the preservation of Judaism to a group of people who want a pure Judaism untouched by secular knowledge. Judaism has always had conflict. Its genius is in finding a structure for that conflict so that all sides can balance each other out. The liberal side of the equation must speak up in defense of its values.

This blog is dedicated to three convictions: that dignity and respect for fellow human beings are core Jewish values; that conflict strengthens us and makes faith more honest; and that secular learning deepens Torah rather than destroys it.

The path to a healthy Judaism requires an education that trains people in the best Western education has to offer. To read texts in fear of the questions the mind can ask ultimately makes us dependent on the political world of authority rather than the texts and traditions of Judaism.

Just as Jacob left the promised land of Canaan and went to Egypt for the sake of love, so too all those who truly love Torah must from time to time leave and immerse themselves in emotional and intellectual life of the wider secular world. It may seem that we are less holy in doing so, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the passage quoted above, the very moment Jacob decides to leave, Jacob becomes Israel, the one who truly wrestles with God. His journey towards Egypt brings him to Beersheva and a direct encounter with God.

However, leaving is not the end of the story. Jacob cannot stay in Egypt. Just as love for his family brought him out of Canaan, love for his family also brings him back. He must return to his land and rest among his ancestors. In his final moments he asks Joseph to bring his bones back as an act of truth and lovingkindness.  In Hebrew, bones are a symbol of the core self, so it isn’t merely Jacob’s bones that return to Canaan, but Jacob’s essence.

In asking to return home,  he becomes the ultimate Jew, a man with one foot in heaven and one foot firmly on the earth.   Throughout the last two chapters of B’reshit, his name flips back and forth between Jacob and Israel.  He is Israel, the man who struggles with God. But he is also Jacob who with cunning grabs the heals of those who seem strong and turns them to his own ends.   Skill and hope unite in these final moments. He blesses his family with an acute eye to each son’s potential and then breaths his last.

Secular knowledge can help us preserve a balenced healthy Judaism but it can only do that if we, like Jacob, are willing to take our secular knowledge and bring it back to the land of our ancestors. For too long we liberal Jews have kept our silence. Sometimes we ask “what do we know? we don’t study all day like they do.”

Sometimes we imagine that our secular values have no connection to Judaism. In fact our Jewish tradition is the soil out of which those values grew. Like Joseph, we must use our secular power and wisdom to do acts of lovingkindness and truth. Like Joseph returning his father’s bones, we liberal Jews must journey back to our roots and ensure that the connection of promises from one generation to another is never broken.

There are two other reasons this blog is called Jacob’s bones:

First, I decided to start it on Shabbat VaYchi. The story of Jacob’s bones is part of that parsha.

Second, on December 20, 2011 my new cousin Jacob Seth was born. He is the first of a new generation – the first great grandchild of my late maternal grandparents, Grace and Jules Backman. May this blog be a small contribution in creating and maintaining the kind of Jewish world in which I hope he grows up to live.  Welcome to the world, Jacob Seth Backman!

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