At Havdalah services, marking the end of Shabbat and distinguishing it one final time from the rest of the week, we praise God for “distinguishing between holy and ordinary.” Yet often, such distinctions are difficult to make or even more difficult to make sense of. Fighting in self-defense may at once be the right course of action and leave us with a sense of “dirty hands” at doing what is ordinarily the wrong action for the right reasons. The traditional “Chinese food and a movie” may distinguish December 25th on the calendars of American Jews yet seems neither entirely sacred nor ordinary – so much as a path to identification on a day when many might otherwise feel “other” and left out of the fun. Reading a secular book may inspire our Jewish pursuits, even if there is nothing Jewish about the author – as Jorge Luis Borges’ evocative Jewish characters may do for his aficionados. More often than not, the sacred and ordinary – or the sacred and secular – are mixed together rather than distinguishable.
Such is the case in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26). In it, we read of Jacob’s death and burial. At once, its description feels deeply Jewish and deeply Egyptian – perhaps the secularity of his day or at least juxtaposed to “holy” from a contemporary vantage point.
At 147 years of age – or a ripe old age of some sort – Jacob prepares for his death. He beseeches Joseph not to bury him in Egypt and instead to be buried in the place of his forebears in the Cave of Machpelah, a plea to which Joseph readily accedes. Yet after Jacob’s death, Joseph also has him embalmed in the way of Egyptians, a process that not even our sages can explain away (as Rashi attempts) as one of using “aromatic spices.” Jacob’s death and burial (and that of Joseph after him) is one of bringing together sacred and secular, proto-Jewish and Egyptian.
As we approach the Gregorian New Year (often dubbed the “secular New Year”), we face the conscious presence of the secular and are invited to add the sacred. The New Year can be one of revelry and merriment – even to an excess. The sacred is an additional time of year for reflection and perhaps even a more modest version of t’shuvah. The secular may involve gathering in big parties to raise a glass. The sacred may involve quieting the mind and moving away from frivolous words during a quiet, dark time of year in the northern hemisphere.
As we approach the New Year, may we heed the example of Jacob and Joseph, not as an invitation to add the secular to the sacred, but rather to infuse secular expectations with sacred opportunities. May this time bring us that which we need – uplift, introspection, friendship, and growth. May we bring to the secular New Year a sacred start.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.