This Shabbat Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman of B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek sent the following email to her congregation. You probably all know about the sequoia that fell in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Rabbi Gutterman draws a connection to this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi. Reading it gave me the shivers. For those of us who have lost loved ones and can remember places that don’t exist anymore this piece will be bittersweet.
“Brought down by California Storm,” the headline read.
The article that followed was not about anyone’s homes, moods or daily routines. It was about the Pioneer Cabin Tree, a sequoia in Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Given that sequoias can easily live over 1,000 years, this particular one had seen horses and carts, cars and pedestrians pass through. The idea of such a giant falling as a result of this most recent spate of wind and rain seems unreal. But it’s true.
“It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch,” wrote Rabbi Chaim Stern of blessed memory. Yet these are exactly the circumstances under which we live and love, always. Loss is disorienting to say the least, and never more so when the person, thing, or grounding reality we lose is one we thought would always be here. Perhaps the mark of true resilience lies in finding new paths to walk and new sources of meaning, even with hearts forever altered.
Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion, marks the ending of the first book of the Torah. Appropriately enough, it concludes with the blessing of Jacob’s sons, immediately followed by both Jacob and Joseph’s deaths. These losses were not only significant for their families, but also life altering for their descendants – the tribes who would become an enslaved people in Egypt.
That’s part of the reason why the closing lines of Vayechi are so significant. Joseph extracted one last promise from his brothers: that when their time of deliverance came, they would carry his bones out of Egypt with them. And so their descendants did, hundreds of years later. This gesture was a way of symbolizing that the most important parts of our pasts come forward with us into our future. As long as we guard our memories, tell our stories, create our legacies, then long ago fragments can be made whole again, even if differently so.
Ancestral bones. Remains of ancient trees. Let us set aside some time this Shabbat and during the coming week to think about what is most enduring in our lives, even in the midst of dislocation or loss. What is most worthy of being held inside and carried forward?
I leave you with a poem by Howard Nemerov that brought me solace and inspiration this week. I hope it brings the same to you.
To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one’s own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One’s Being deceptively armored,
One’s Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word-
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also-though there has never been
A critical tree-about the nature of things.