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December 18, 2015

It would be enough (Parashat Vayigash)

Ari S. Lorge

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In the final scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens… just kidding.  Stop running for the doors. I promise this is a spoiler-free sermon.  There’s going to be no Star Wars in this d’rash at all.

Instead, I want to focus tonight on the Broadway musical Hamilton and a character trait that lies at the center of the story of America’s founding father Alexander Hamilton, because this trait also lies at the center of the story of our patriarch Jacob.  Both Jacob and Hamilton are characters whose lives are driven by never feeling like they never have enough, or never have achieved enough.

In fact, throughout the musical Hamilton, multiple characters, reflecting on Alexander’s drive and ambition sing, “He will never be satisfied.”  But, throughout the musical, Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, pleads with him to find satisfaction.  She sings to him, “Look at where you are.  Look at where you started.  The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.  Just stay alive, that would be enough.” 

This becomes a refrain of hers whose lines will alter and change, but each and every time ends with the phrase “That would be enough.”  For example, after the Revolutionary War, when Hamilton is fighting to get Congress to agree to his famous banking credit deal, Eliza sings, “If I could grant you peace of mind… that would be enough.”

But nothing is ever enough.  And so he makes terrible sacrifices.  He sacrifices friendships, time with those he loves, his reputation, even his relationship with his family in order to continue to succeed and make a mark on the world around him.  Hamilton feels that history has its eyes on him, and nothing will hold him from taking his place in it.  In his words, “I will not throw away my shot.”

Jacob is a similar soul, for whom nothing is enough.  He is willing to coerce his brother into giving up his birthright, he takes advantage of his father’s infirmity so he can steal his brother’s blessing, he breaks an ancient custom in order to marry the younger daughter before her older sister is wed, he deceives his father-in-law in order to get every last sheep he feels he has earned, he clings to an angel until it will bless him.  Like Hamilton, in pursuing his sense of destiny, Jacob sacrifices relationships, family, and reputation on the altar of his success and legacy.

But both these characters have a sudden shift prompted by the same event.  Upon their road to greatness, both lose a child—or at least both think they do.  And this is the turning point that allows them to recognize that there is something more important than greatness, legacy, destiny, and success: relationships with those we love, that nothing can sustain us or satisfy us as much as deep connections to others can. 

After losing his son, Alexander Hamilton finally takes the refrain that his wife has sung to him over and over again, and now sings it to her, as a pathetic and powerful plea.  He sings, “Look at where we are, look at where we started, I know there’s no replacing what we lost and you need time, but I’m not afraid, I know who I married, just let me stay here by your side and that would be enough.”  In a startling turn, the man who could never be satisfied realizes that he could have had satisfaction all along, that what he had was in fact enough; and could be again if he can repair the broken relationships.

And Jacob has this same realization in this week’s Torah portion.  He learns that his son Joseph, is, in fact, alive.  Joseph sends riches and chariots back to his brothers and to his father.  His brothers are gawking at these symbols of Joseph’s power.  But Jacob says to them “Rav,” which commentators say means, “It’s enough.”  The rest of this—Joseph’s position, his status—it doesn’t matter.  “What matters is that my son is still alive, my family can be together again, we can be at each other’s side. Rav—that will be enough.”

The truth is that few of us are Jacob or Hamilton… though many of us likely think our lives would make great source material for Broadway.  And, especially as New Yorkers, many of us feel the drive to succeed, to make the most of every moment, to not throw away our shot. 

In fact, simply because we are human, there lies in our hearts some modicum of a desire to live on beyond our life-span, to find our corner of the sky, where the sun and moon and stars bow to us.  Our fire that drives us may not be as grand or lofty in scope as with a Jacob or with a Hamilton, but each of us at some point is driven by feeling we have some great purpose to pursue, a destiny to fulfill.  And this can push us to do great, awesome, important things. 

But, it can also force us to make great and awesome sacrifices.  It can twist us until we lose sight of the eternal truth: that without being bound to others by love, no success, no achievement, no life is truly full.  We can take and take and take, never feeling like it is enough, but just as surely as we rise, we will also certainly fall.  And whether we are ascending or tumbling, the only constant is that if we are surrounded by loving community, that will be enough—enough to weather the highs and the lows, enough to add joy to our days, enough to ground our all too short time with deep meaning and purpose. 

Luckily, this realization need not be spurred by dramatic loss that puts everything in perspective.  Rather, each of us might say every day of our lives, “Look at where we are.  Look at where we started.  The fact that we are alive is a miracle.  Let us be at someone’s side; that will be enough.”