Friday, December 21, 2007

Vayechi: Coming to a Theater Near You

This week we end the book of Genesis, and fittingly so we say goodbye to the last of the Patriarchs, Jacob. This Parsha, Vayechi, begins with Jacob lying on his death bed, blessing the sons of his own favorite son Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, fitting bestowing onto them the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people:
"Behold, I will make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and I will make of thee a company of peoples; and will give this land to thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession" (Gen. 47:4)
The story does take an interesting twist, as Jacob decides to give the blessing reserved for the elder to the younger, Ephraim. This ironically enrages Joseph -- who himself was the youngest, and also favorite, of his father -- but Jacob explains: "He also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations." (Gen. 48:19)

This is an interesting bookend to both the life of Jacob and the book of Genesis, which is chock full of sibling rivalry. Starting with the most famous sibling rivalry, that of Cain and Abel (and we all know how that turned out); we move to Isaac and Ishmael; and then onto a story, that of Jacob and Esau, strikingly similar to the current Parsha, to Joseph's exile to Egypt at the hands of his own brothers, finally arriving back at the current situation: a younger son being given preferential treatment.

It is unclear in the text whether or not G-d told Jacob to bestow this blessing upon Ephraim instead of Manasseh or if Jacob was projecting his own sibling-dynamic biases. Regardless of the motivation, it is clear that Jacob's choice would have consequences.

Last night I saw a sneak preview of Charlie Wilson's War, the true story of how a playboy congressman, a renegade CIA agent and a beautiful Houston socialite joined forces to lead the largest and most successful covert operation in history. Their efforts contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

I enjoyed the movie a great deal. The dialogue between Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos) was witty and entertaining amidst the horror the Afghani people suffered during the Soviet invasion of their country.

Unlike many covert operations the United States government has undertaken throughout its more recent history, be it the Bay of Pigs or Iran Contra, Wilson’s operation was deemed a major success at the time, but ultimately failed at the United States refused to take the steps necessary to rebuild Afghanistan after it had been ravaged by war, allowing the fundamentalist Taliban to take control of the country. We all know the end product of this miscalculation. Without giving too much away, Wilson struggles with the US government's incapability to finish the job he catalyzed. Prior to the credits appears this quote from the real Charlie Wilson: "Those things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And then we fucked up the endgame."

So much written in the Torah is both "glorious" and "changed the world," but you have to question whether some decisions made were the "will of god" or simply poor decision based on the free will of man. The consequences of these actions are seen today, as religious fundamentalism fuels so much of the hate amongst people throughout the world. Will this story eventually have a happy ending?

In Charlie Wilson's War, Avrakotos tells Wilson the story of a Zen master and a troubled villager. The villager is worried about the repercussions of his son getting a horse, then injuring himself on the horse, and then his inability to go to war due to his injury. Each time the villager goes to the Zen master, the Zen master replies, "We shall see," highlighting both the future’s uncertainty and also teaching the villager to look past the surface of what seems like a foregone conclusion. This week, as we turn to the next book of the Torah and we turn the page in our world's history, "We shall see" if foregone conclusions are realized or more complex consequences come to pass.

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