Mercury in the Bones

My teacher Irv Saposnik, of blessed memory, loved the Biblical patriarch Jacob. During our one on one learning sessions each Friday afternoon at Hillel on Langdon Street in Madison, Wisconsin, Irv ploughed into Jacob with all the tools in his kit: as English professor and Yiddish scholar; as son, father and husband; as Brownsville-East New York kid yearning to breathe free; and as rebbe (though Irv was never a rabbi). Each of these manifestations of his own character found their way into his confrontation with, and analysis of, Jacob. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and the

first time I came to realize that the text we inherit from our ancestors, teeming with letters and words, is also a blank canvas upon which we are generously invited by its Author to paint our own masterpiece.

And if you think that last notion is heretical, good. You’re in fine company. “It is not possible to engage in the study of Torah without innovation,” the Talmud teaches. The “black fire on white fire” description of Revelation is as dangerous as it is sustaining; it is never static and it is always dynamic. Irv taught me that. And by the way, Irv’s Hebrew name was Isaac. Fancy that.

So Jacob in Isaac’s hands was a pleasure to behold. There were the accusations flung at him for stealing Esau’s birthright and chuckles of pleasure at the homebody Jacob needing his mother Rebecca to devise a scheme to win the blessing of the first-born from a blind and dying Isaac. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” This is some fine kabuki. Isaac knew, deep down, that he needed a clever conniver to take over the family mantle and that Esau was too simple to wear it. He needed assurance that he could not trust resided in his actual firstborn, and so he passively relented to the scheme. Rebecca, from Isaac’s father Abraham’s clan in the east, knew what to do to keep the family intact. She arranged the whole thing. Isaac went along. Jacob went along. Esau was robbed. And we Jews are still here today because of it.

When Irv first laid that theory at my feet (mic drops hadn’t been invented yet) I was dumbstruck. But then I realized it was true. There is, perhaps, an element in all our lives where there is some breach in the past, a transgression even, or a betrayal, that scars but never disappears. The real meaning of being a Jew in the world is not striving for perfection but rather gaining wisdom and understanding from our own weaknesses in order to eventually ensure that good and justice are done. It’s a tricky thing. Hardscrabble stories of mythic pasts are romantic; but they can also be disturbing and damaging.

My great grandfather Chaim Siegel was a saint when I was growing up. I never met him. He died long before I was born. But his dark eyes and goatee, styled jacket and tie, popped from the sepia colors in a family frame that conveyed brilliance, a scholar’s mind and business acumen that brought the family to safety in America at the turn of the century. He snuck Shakespeare into the pages of his prayer book in the Orthodox synagogue where he was president. He won communal awards for the money raised on behalf of the early Zionist enterprise in British Mandate Palestine; two sons became doctors and his daughter married another. Success.

But a few years ago, in researching his burlap bag factory history (Siegel Bag Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin) I discovered that in 1930 there was a terrible fire in his factory, and that in the attempt to put it out, the water-soaked burlap collapsed the floors of the building and two firemen died. There was a court inquest. It was found that the building had an illegal floor added to it. I read the transcripts and found my saintly great grandfather sounded rather slippery, not as contrite as I would have hoped; frightened, defensive, and ultimately diminished. I scanned newspaper accounts of the fire and found stories of the two men who had died. One had yet to have children, a family line snuffed out. I felt awful and somehow responsible. My family did this.

And so one autumn a couple years ago, I traveled back to Milwaukee and visited two cemeteries, one Protestant and one Catholic, and found the graves of these men in simple, humble, unadorned plots. I remember the frost on the grass. I remember the late fall leaves crunching underfoot. I remember the wide expanse of other graves and other stories crouching toward the quiet road in the distance. “I came here to apologize for what my great grandfather did,” I said. “I ask forgiveness on his behalf.” And then I said the Kaddish. It was my belief at the time, and still is, that to be a Jew, to be human, is to recognize that our inherent imperfections require taking responsibility for our own errors as often as we take responsibility, in some form or another, for the hurt and pain caused by those who came before us. Just look at America today, for God’s sake. We would do well to exercise humility and work together to right past wrongs rather than shirk a responsibility that awaits our ready hands, no?

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’Yiggash, Jacob is anxious about his journey down to Egypt, where he has been summoned by his son Joseph, who was considered dead. Fooled by his jealous sons in their effort to best their brother, whose gifts of prophecy and favor were better than theirs, Jacob was passive in the face of their sibling strife, did nothing to prevent their division, and accepted the ruse of Joseph’s disappearance with astounding selfishness. Some patriarch. But here in this week’s reading, he is close to the end of his life. He is dying and he is afraid. And it is God who reassures him that while this journey down to Egypt will likely be his last (and we readers know the dire future of 400 years of slavery that lie ahead) there is the promise of ultimate redemption.

“God called to Israel in a vision by night: ‘Jacob! Jacob! He answered, ‘Here I am.’ And God said, ‘I am God. The God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back. And Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.’” (Genesis 46:2-4)

Jacob’s deepest fears of dying and not being cared for, not being returned to his final resting place with his father and grandfather, of not being made whole, as it were, is intuited by God, who speaks with confidence that Joseph will care for the father who neglected him. Sure, he favored him by giving him that nice jacket, but then what? Jacob left his son as prey for cruel and envious brothers who kidnapped Joseph, stole his jacket (dipping it in blood to fake his death), and then never sent out a search party to rescue his beloved child. I can still hear Irv laughing at Jacob to this day. “He could be such a schmuck!”

But Joseph is our hero this week. He accepts his father lovingly. He brings him into exile to die but arranges with Pharoah to bury him back up in the land of Israel. So present is he in these final moments that it is Joseph who closes his father’s eyelids after death, a Jewish practice to this day, according to Ibn Ezra.

We may suppose that Joseph would have had every reason to reject his brothers and his father for the damage done, but it’s what Joseph does with his scars that presents us with a model for wisdom. He forgives. He sees the greater path to humility and responsibility. By accepting death with grace, he offers redemption for his family.

I remember standing over Irv’s grave after he died. The Jewish cemetery in Madison is one of the most beautiful tracts of prairie land you’ll ever see. Within a few steps is the grave of another teacher I buried, George Mosse. And in the distance is a nice golf course, which my dad would have appreciated—not so much Irv and George. But as we threw down the last shovelfuls of earth and laid his body to rest, I was filled with a feeling of warm mercury coursing through my body. Mercury, the Roman god of the underworld and luck; of commerce and trickery; of messages and conveyance; of boundaries and borders and eloquent words.

Heretical to end a Jewish teaching with Roman myth? Ha! “It is not possible to engage in the study of Torah without innovation,” the Talmud teaches.