Vayechi 5784

A new ‘secular’ year, 2024, is approaching. The end of the ‘secular’ year is a reckoning and an evaluation time for many people in the world. For many of us, Jews, too. Although we count years in our own way we are still part of the general human population and we follow many of their patterns. 

Having said that, I must acknowledge one basic fact: We live in a different world than we lived a year ago. Davar acher – as the rabbis of Talmud often say, which stands for alternatively or another interpretation is: we know the world we live in a bit better than we knew it before. This knowledge may not be joyful but it’s still knowledge and obtaining it counts as mitzvah: to educate ourselves is both a fundamental mitzvah and fundamental value in Judaism. 

The event that exposed the darkest and scariest corners of our reality was obviously October 7. For us, Jews, it was the most horrifying event since the Holocaust. It was a turning point also in terms of the perception of the reality we live in. It began the process of rediscovering our reality, a process marked by getting rid of many illusions. The monster opened its mouth and the true extent of anti-Semitism was revealed to us, not immediately but feeding us with this awareness gradually, day after day. 

Our tradition teaches us that we should keep learning throughout our entire life and never cease to learn. Therefore, the only limits of our knowledge are set by the length of our lives. In our parasha for this week, our forefather, Jacob Israel, fully aware that his life is coming to an end, spends his last moments teaching his sons, giving them last lessons and instructions. (Gen 48-49)

We all have one life only. Or, to put it in a different way – we definitely have one life we can be sure of. Given that fundamental, existential fact it is absolutely reasonable to live life as happily as we can. In Judaism, to live a happy life means living also a fundamentally meaningful life. Not only our tradition completely supports both of these ideas: to live a happy and a meaningful life is actually our religious obligation. So, the question would be what can we do to fulfill this obligation despite all the challenges and bad events we witness almost every day? 

It’s a very extensive topic but I will try to give you some tips. 

First of all, let’s avoid negativity, especially all kinds of casual or unnecessary negativity. Where do we encounter the most of it? On the internet, obviously, in social media. Thus, it’s good to consider limiting our social media activity – there is actually a theory, quite credible in my opinion, that our current social tribalism and the depth of current social division is caused mostly  – or exactly by – the influence of social media on our life. 

My life on-line is significantly different from my life off-line. Our discussions online – I’m sure many of you will acknowledge that – are completely different from our conversations at the dinner table. Sometimes they become similar but mostly when our conversations at the dinner table become hijacked by something we encountered on-line. 

A good way to take a break from social media and the internet is to follow the laws of our tradition – the laws of Shabbat. Let’s put away our phones and everything that has access to the internet on Shabbat. For some of us it is normal Shabbat practice, for some others – something to consider. 

The ‘reality’ of social media creates delusions. One of those delusions is that what is going on facebook, instagram or X matters the most, more than anything else and requires immediate response. The ‘reality’ of social media therefore fundamentally invites impulsive behavior. This brings me to my second point: let’s try to keep peace of mind, at all possible times. It’s pretty bizarre that we can increase our peace of mind simply focusing on the matters that are around us. The everyday reality around us is incomparably more peaceful than the reality of media or social media. At least that’s my experience. It’s actually stunning how everything is well organized and properly works, everyday – the whole infrastructure of our civilization works as it should, food is delivered to the stores, trains and planes are on time etc. I myself find focusing on my immediate surroundings quite comforting and relaxing. Let’s focus on life around us, our family, friends and our neighborhoods. 

Thirdly, let’s try to see every experience as a learning opportunity. As I mentioned at the beginning, educating ourselves is a fundamental mitzvah in our tradition. This approach helps us to deal with difficult situations and empowers us with hope that ‘next time we will do better’. 

Lastly, contribute more, take less. An attitude like that always makes life more meaningful. 

For many of us, the year 2023 was quite turbulent. It’s pretty unreasonable to believe that 2024 will be less turbulent than 2023. However, ‘turbulent’ doesn’t necessarily mean bad. On the contrary, good, new and exciting things will certainly come up so I wish you and your families to experience everything that is good as fully as you can! This, again, will counterbalance all kinds of negativities we may encounter. I wish you all the best but ‘fasten your seat belts’ because 2024 is coming!

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Menachem Mirski 

It would really be appreciated if you could share this article and spread the word. Toda raba