Vayechi: Dementia, Reality & Expectation
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This episode is another Torah-focused podcast. Like last week, I’ll structure it around 5 faces of Torah: inspirational, political, trivial, structural, and finally my answers to standard questions.
Near the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, messengers come to Yosef and tell him his father is sick. Yosef brings his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, to his father. Yosef visits Yaacov as he is resting on his bed.
At first, Yaacov seems confused. Yosef has to be introduced and then Yaacov seems to drift from place to place – from blessing to inheritance to the burial of Rachel. The bridges between his thoughts seem formless. He names Ephraim and Menashe as his heirs but then – moments later, fails to recognize them.
There are many explanations for this odd behavior.
I want to share the obvious one. I believe, at this point in his life, that Yaacov has dementia.
Yaacov is 147 years old. He’s lived a tough life and he’s losing his connection to this world.
Then, in an instant, it all changes. He touches Ephraim and Menashe and – with that – he is blessed with the power of prophecy. He sees their futures and the futures of all the brothers. He is beyond cogent – he is inspired.
I believe the reason for this transformation is simple. As we see in this reading – and as Rabbi Sacks was fond of pointing out – Ephraim and Menashe were the first brothers in Torah who didn’t fight. They weren’t competing with one another. Yosef from a family riven by competition. Yosef learned the power of purpose – of focusing on something greater than yourself. Yosef used that understanding of purpose to transform himself, Pharaoh and almost certainly Asnat – his wife. The Torah said Yosef was constantly travelling for work. Asnat raised their children – she raised them with the lessons Yosef had learned.
They did not compete – which is why we bless our sons today in their names.
Yosef’s sons are connected to the past and the future – that is what purpose is. It is about reaching beyond your own time and place. When Yaacov touches them he – a man who is already stepping outside of time as he loses his connection to the world – is able not only to drift through the past but to touch the future.
This connection to the future awakens Yaacov. It grants him prophecy. Few are capable of such a transformation. Reality is far more mundane for most. Nonetheless, we know that social connection – and particularly connection to the young – helps everyday people with dementia keeping connected to this world.
Connection helps them stay alive. Connection helps them stave off the reality of cognitive decline.
Among the many impacts of corona has been one particularly poignant one.
According to a Politico report from September, during the coronavirus epidemic an additional 26,000 Americans have died from dementia. Without contact, people with dementia see far more rapid cognitive decline. This decline can lead to death. While 26,000 is a small fraction of those who have died overall, death only represents the tip of the reality for the almost 6 million US Alzheimer’s patients. These patients, and many others with age-related cognitive issues, have had their connection to the future severed by this disease.
Through social distancing, we may be rescuing lives at the cost of living.
For those who can accept the concept of the Torah as more than a myth, try to imagine how different our reality would have been had Yaacov not touched his grandchildren. Would we have had twelve tribes of Israel? Would countless millions have blessed their children as Yaacov blessed Ephraim and Menashe? Would the Children of Israel have maintained their identity during the Egyptian exile? Would untold numbers of divrai Torah and sermons – with their own impacts – have had this material to work with?
One touch and the world was changed in ways we can’t begin to understand.
As far as I know, our elderly aren’t Yaacovs. Few if any have spoken to G-d or had their generations blessed by Him. For our elderly, the gift of prophecy won’t be unlocked by a touch.
Nonetheless, something is unlocked. Some spark of connection, some filament reaching across generations, some essence of life and meaning.
With the coronavirus that something has been lost.
Yehudah HaLevi wrote that when we die our bodies cease – what is left is the holiness we’ve created during our lives.
As I understand it, G-d’s example left us a dichotomy. G-d created and it was good and then rested and it was Holy. In a way those without dementia are losing their connection to goodness. They can no longer create in our world. They are losing their sense of time and reality.
What is left is their holiness – such as it may be.
In this terrible time, it is up to us – those who can still change the world – to create a future in touch can be restored.
It is up to us to create a future in which our children can be inspired by the holiness of our parents.
When he speaks, Yaacov delivers three things. Prophecies, blessings and curses.
The prophecies – where Yaacov does not state a preference – seem to come true. Judah becomes ruler. Zebulun dwells by the sea shore. And so on. Although we may not understand some of the other blessings, they have not been failed to occur.
But the blessings and the curses are another matter. As we read Yaacov’s blessings and curses it is clear that they don’t all come true. Even when they do, they are twisted from his original intent.
Yaacov says, about Shimon and Levy:
Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
Both were scattered, but Israel’s glory was united around the assembly of Levi. Both Moses and Aaron were of the tribe of Levi and the priests emerge from that same group.
In a way, the blessings and curses are a reminder of human limitation. All human blessings seem to have this pattern. Noach curses Canaan, but they are not made slaves. Yitzchak blesses Yaacov with a blessing meant for Esav – but its reality fails to extend beyond Yitzchak’s own life.
The blessings have an impact. But they don’t bend heaven and earth. Their greatest power is the power to change the expectations of the men and women who hear them. Blessings speak to the power of expectation.
In Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography she talks about three Somalian brothers – from the 1400s. Those three brothers defined the main tribes of Somalia and their characteristics attached to those tribes. Those characteristics apply, even today.
The brother’s impact is not genetic – they shared a father.
Their impact is all about social expectation and its ability to carry through time.
Social class, in so many places, is about social expectation. My wife and I heard a doctor with a cockney accent on the radio – we knew she didn’t work in England. Expectation would have held her down. Indeed, she’d moved to Canada.
People are deeply influenced by expectation. We live up – or down – to cultural norms.
Yes, our attributes are influenced by a genetic reality. But we, by and large, live on a spectrum of possibility. Where we fall on that spectrum comes down to our will – and it comes down to expectations.
The English hooligan who gets into bar fights is not that far removed from the Englishman who leads a perfectly productive and violence-free middle-class life.
There’s a spectrum and expectation weighs heavily on where we fall.
In this way, our reality is defined by the same core force that give such weight to Yaacov’s blessings and curses.
Sometimes, this comes at a terrible cost.
When faced with a mental or behavioral issue, we diagnose. Sometimes there is a physiological core to that diagnosis – schizophrenia is a physical, genetic, ailment. Sometimes, though, we take a kernel of reality and expand it. A kid might be hyperactive – if he or she fits certain checkboxes we define him or her as having ADHD. Our expectations for that child – as parents, as teachers – change. We aren’t treating a lack of focus or excess energy in the classroom. Instead, we begin to treat a syndrome that may or may not exist. The child becomes defined by that syndrome and we look for and find other aspects of it.
All too often, instead of solving problems, we create expectations. Suddenly the kid isn’t only hyper and distracted – perhaps he or she suffers from difficulty in regulating emotions or controlling impulses.
Expectation is a powerful force. Expectation becomes reality.
We should use it sparingly.
Again, there is a spectrum. There are those for whom all of these attributes are inescapable. And there are those for whom the expectation of normalcy will have more positive impact than any amount of intervention.
This is my political rant. Where expectations can lead to a negative reality – let us do everything we can to set aside those expectation. As parents or friends, react to specific issues instead of casting an entire person into a mold they need not fit. As people, resist the urge to cast others aside as morally bankrupt or fundamentally stupid due to a particular belief or political perspective you happen to disagree with.
This is not a call for civility. This is not a call to treat others with respect.
This is a call to make others better through your simple expectation that they will be.
When I was growing up, my parents brought many troubled teenagers into our house.
In the vast majority of cases, those kids left stronger than they had been when they’d come.
One of those then-teenagers told me, years later, why he had come.
He’d been high in his room when my father was visiting. In the years prior to my father’s visit, he’d done hundreds of hits of acid as well as a goodly assortment of other drugs.
He didn’t expect to live past 25. High school graduation was out of the question.
My dad insisted that he come downstairs. He didn’t want to, but my dad was persistent.
When he finally came down, my dad looked at him and said something to the effect of: “Why in the hell are you wasting your life when you can change the world?”
When that no-longer young man told me the story, he told me that nobody had ever expected so much from him before.
That expectation changed his life.
That man is in his early 50s now. He graduated high school. He still struggles with addiction issues, but today he serves as an anchor of his community. He helps others with problems like his own realize that they can be more than simply addicts.
He raises their expectations.
I’m going to share a second political rant.
In this reading, we see the definition of Chait – of sin. The brothers define it as doing damage. Destruction is sin.
In the moral world, there are two responses to this.
If we envision ourselves as purely natural, deterministic, creatures – then we cannot damage our world. Our actions are entirely natural. There is only ethics, there is no morality.
In this world, there is almost no sin.
This world is a world in which hypocrisy is the greatest sin. Seeking to break free of your nature – and failing to do so – is the greatest sin.
The only sin is the sin against what is natural.
As I said before, I believe we all have numerous spectrums of possibilities. In some areas, that spectrum may be narrow – in others it may be wide. We might seek our truest natural reality – but I doubt there is anything actually there. If our highest reality is our natural reality, we might find ourselves grasping for emptiness.
We embrace expectation because we want something more than ourselves. Whether it be community or purpose, we want something more. What we have to offer ourselves is a fraction of what we have to offer the world around us.
If we define a world where the only sin is hypocrisy, then we define a world without meaning.
I believe G-d used the snake to entice Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil because it is better to know Good and Evil than it is to know neither.
It is better to live in a world of moral color than a world of unending gray.
For me, the structural purpose of this reading is both to lay the groundwork for the rest of Torah and to show us the limits of humankind.
In a way, a pinnacle has been reached. Through four generations of growth we’ve learned about G-d, about the lasting reality of connection, about the need to work with the world and about the power of purpose and responsibility.
Despite all that growth, we remain far from perfect people.
Yaacov sees fundamental flaws in his sons. And while Yosef expects them to be brought out of Egypt by the virtue of their own characters – they fall far from the heights realized in Genesis.
What we’re seeing in this reading is that the battle to improve ourselves, to step up, to be G-dly in how we act, is never truly won. Just having three generations of Torah scholars or righteous people doesn’t lead to the elimination of our issues.
There is no New Man that is created. No ideal person emerges – to slot into the fabric of an ideal society. The nature of our lives is that we always have to strive to improve. After an entire book of character growth, this reading is reminder that what is gained is not necessarily retained.
All roads remains open. What matters is our direction, not what destination we’ve reached.
#1: It is interesting that Joseph has to ask permission to leave Egypt in order to bury his father. In the next reading, the Egyptians originally enslave the Jews because they are afraid they will leave. Egypt is dependent on the Jews just as Pharaoh is dependent on Joseph.
Joseph’s need to almost beg for permission – using the oath he swore to appeal to Pharaoh’s sense of purpose – reminds us of Joseph’s limits. His brothers can leave without permission, but Joseph remains a slave.
A powerful slave, yes – but a slave.
There’s a great story of a man named Hermotimus. Hermotimus was castrated as a boy and sold. By some accounts he became second in command to the great Persian emperor Xerxes.
Eventually he came back to the town where he’d been castrated. He invited the man who’d done it to a conversation. He told him that he wanted to thank him for the opportunities it had created. After all, by all accounts, he was wealthy and powerful.
He invited the man’s entire family to a celebration. The man came. When he did, Hermotimus forced him to castrate his own sons and then forced his sons to castrate their father.
It is a brutal story, but it is reminder than in the ancient world even those slaves who grew powerful remained slaves.
#2: At the end of the reading, Yosef expects that the Jewish people will be rescued because Hashem will Pakad them . G-d will rescue them because they deserve it. In reality, G-d rescued them because He Zocher’s them – he remembers the covenant made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov. They are rescued because of a contract and Yosef’s high expectations are not met.
#3: Gad is blessed:
גָּד, גְּדוּד יְגוּדֶנּוּ; וְהוּא, יָגֻד עָקֵב.
Gad, a troop shall troop upon him; but he shall troop upon their heel.
This suggests a militant group that attacks the heal. In other words, special forces. The regular army attacks in force, forces that attack the heal tend to operate in smaller numbers.
Later on, when the people are counted “by their circles” (לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָם), I understand those circles to be military units. For every tribe the count adds up to a round 100, suggesting the military units are 100 men large.
But Gad adds up to 50. Perhaps this is precisely because they were special forces.
#1: Yaacov opens his prophecies with: “’Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days.”
Many commentators ask why he lost the ability to see the future. I don’t think he did. All of his prophecies – excluding his blessings and curses – see the future. They may not see the end of days, but perhaps they do see the timeless definitions of the sons and their tribes. Yehudah is royal, Dan a judge and Asher a cook. Even if 11 tribes have disappeared, Yaacov’s definition might define them outside of the limits of time. At the end of days, these images are the images of who they are.
#2: At the very beginning Yaacov summons Yosef to ask him to bury him in Israel. So why does Joseph go back a second time when he’s told his father is ill? Along with that, why didn’t he bring his children the first time?
On one level, perhaps Yosef simply wanted to say goodbye.
But perhaps there is another level.
At the first meeting, Yaacov laid out what he wanted from Yosef. In the second meeting, Joseph doesn’t want his father to set the agenda. He doesn’t want to focus on the past – or on a story that ends with his father’s burial. Yosef wants to go back to what he has learned – the importance of purpose. At the time of Yaacov’s own death, Yosef wants Yaacov to focus on the future.
The living future.
That is why he brings his sons.
It is an action that reinforces that a person on the edge of death, with a mind that is not firing on all cylinders, can still impact the future. That person only needs the opportunity.
We live in a time of a pandemic – when many who are dying lack the opportunity to touch the generations that will follow.
This decision by Yosef should serve as a reminder – don’t wait until you are on the edge of death to touch the world. Don’t wait until you might lose your chance to change the lives of others.
There’s a popular saying – you live for as long as people remember your name. I believe you live far longer than that. I am who I am in no small part because tens of lost generations of now nameless people who decided to maintain their connection to Judaism.
They live in on me – and we can live on in the lives of those who follow us.
But to live on in others, we must make the effort to touch the lives of those closest to us.
So, act now, and change the world forever.
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You might also enjoy the free thriller I wrote based on the nature of blessing and curse. It is called “The Hidden Agent” and is up at https://www.josephcox.com/agent
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova
In regards to Gad: they were assigned to the vanguard, much like modern US Rangers, and, for historical parallels (as one may object to comparing this to modern warfare), the triarii (veterans in the early roman legion) units were half of the standard maniple, and alexander’s elite (hypaspists) were routinely sent in small numbers ahead of the main army to seize important objectives.