You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayechi.
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
Just as our secular year 2020 began 12 months ago and is now ending, so the Book of Bereishit began some months ago and is now ending in our weekly portion of Vayichi. Sometimes the same revelations that appear in the beginning repeat themselves over and over until they are finally integrated and accepted. As I look back into the beginning of Bereishit I find that the message that emerges in the minds of our Sages is reintroduced in the tale of Jacob blessing his sons.
Our Rabbis ask the question, ‘Why did the Torah begin with the letter Bet (the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet) rather than the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet Aleph. They answer that the letter Aleph (one) connotes a unity that is not inherent in our current creation. This unity must be achieved by healing the ‘opposites,’ through partnering with our fellow human beings and the spirit of G-d to achieve this unity. The misconception that this is a world of unity, is an escape from reality, an avoidance of the work that is to be done to promote true unity. There is a desire to avoid (escape from) the tension of opposites (fragmentation, dualities), to escape back into the Garden of Eden with the fulfilled wish of unity and serenity. Our commentators point out that this is really a naive consciousness, a desire to return to the womb, a death wish which Freud calls Thanatos. Our Rabbis point out, that the letter Aleph spells Arur which means curse.
In G-d’s wisdom, our world was created with opposites (the letter Bet-two) to lead us on a journey towards wholeness; to do the work that will create a true consciousness, a true unity; through development gained by engaging with the opposites (the world of Bet) . This way of ‘being’ in the world leads to growth, insight, creativity, discovery, and true blessing as Bet is the first letter of the word ‘Beracha,’ which means blessing. It is indeed the energetic ‘life’ movement (eros) toward actualizing the image of G-d within, the creative spirit, the bestowing of expansive Light, rather than living a life without challenge or stress that leads to true blessing and purpose and meaning. And for this we are created.
In our Parsha this week, we receive the same message. The Midrash teaches that just as Jacob is in the midst of blessing his children and wants to reveal to them the ‘Truth’ that all will be well, that the Messiah is promised to appear, that redemption will appear, that exile will end and thus there is nothing to worry about, an angel appears and prevents him from relaying this fact to his family. The Sfat Emet comments that if future ‘unity and harmony’ is revealed without the struggle to achieve it through effort, a malaise and ennui can develop that inhibits growth and the spiritual purpose for which we have been created, to uplift and heal the tensions in our world. Jacob is taught that one must struggle to find the truth, and that is where creativity and new insights are developed along the journey. Thus, the healthy, dynamic, energetic movement toward greater truth and eventual wholeness is supported by faith rather than an ‘easy truth.’ The whole development of the deep insights in the Talmud is due to the SEARCH for truth that is not easily accessible, but through dialogue new perceptions and insights are revealed. Indeed, these truths, sometimes ever evolving would remain dormant if the need to DISCOVER them was not necessary.
In Torah study new insights and revelations always become manifest through struggling with the texts and revealing new ways that the Light of Torah can be applied. The encounter with the opposites opinions of our Sages develops our different ways of seeing the world and deepens us. Torah study suggests that this is not a world of ‘simple truth.’ It is a world where deep truths are revealed through faith, persistence and the reward of discovery, achievement, and the accompanying gratitude toward G-d for the mystery and wisdom of creation.
As the Sfat Emet points out, it is Faith, that gives us the courage to struggle against darkness until finally we reveal its secret and come to the place of Truth and recognize that the LIght was always there waiting only to be discovered. Moreover, Jacob demands of his children to ‘Gather together’ (“Heosfu”-49:1), for it is in living together in harmony, and not torn by conflict and dissension where the Light of discovery is manifest. It is through dialogue between brothers and sisters where the holy bread of truth is revealed, each contributing his/her unique insights and gifts revealing deeper truths. When there is strife, anger, and hatred between brothers an exile and enslavement in Egypt occurs, or the destruction of the Holy Temple follows. All dialogue is lost, and the bright gems that can only be discovered through struggle with each other’s difference, remain darkened; the Light remains lonely waiting to be rekindled.
Today, as this New Year begins let us rekindle the sparks through faith, through the necessary steps to face the struggle that will help us discover that beneath the darkness is always the Light, this deeper truth waiting to be discovered. Through the power of faith and the strength of community we shall persevere and begin to heal the world this year. We will emerge from the darkness to reveal that love and courage and faith is the elixir. G-d believes in us, and now we must believe in ourselves and partner with G-d to restore the Light, the Truth to be discovered and the joy that follows through our discovery. It is a daily discovery; it is in front of us all the time when we open our hearts to the beauty of the universe that is always present.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Family, Faith and Freedom
If you want to understand what a book is about, look carefully at how it ends. Genesis ends with three deeply significant scenes.
First, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasheh. This is the blessing that Jewish parents use on Friday night to bless their sons. My predecessor Lord Jakobovits used to ask, why this blessing of all the blessings in the Torah? He gave a beautiful reply. He said, all the others are from fathers to sons – and between fathers and sons there can be tension. Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasheh is the only instance in the Torah of a grandparent blessing a grandchild. And between grandparents and grandchildren there is no tension, only pure love.
Second, Jacob blesses his twelve sons. There is discernible tension here. His blessings to his eldest three sons, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, read more like curses than blessings. Yet the fact is that he is blessing all twelve together in the same room at the same time. We have not seen this before. There is no record of Abraham blessing either Ishmael or Isaac. Isaac blesses Esau and Jacob separately. The mere fact that Jacob is able to gather his sons together is unprecedented, and important. In the next chapter – the first of Exodus – the Israelites are, for the first time, described as a people. It is hard to see how they could live together as a people if they could not live together as a family.
Third, after the death of Jacob, the brothers asked Joseph to forgive them, which he does. He had also done so earlier. Evidently, the brothers harbour the suspicion that he was merely biding his time until their father died, as Esau at one point resolved to do. Sons do not take revenge within the family while the father is alive – that seems to have been the principle in those days. Joseph speaks directly to their fears and puts them at rest. “You intended to harm me but God intended it for good,” he says.
The Torah is telling us an unexpected message here: the family is prior to all else, to the land, the nation, politics, economics, the pursuit of power and the accumulation of wealth. From an external point of view, the impressive story is that Joseph reached the heights of power in Egypt, the Egyptians themselves mourned the death of his father Jacob and accompanied the family on their way to bury him, so that the Canaanites, seeing the entourage said, “The Egyptians are holding a solemn ceremony of mourning” (Gen. 50:11). But that is externality. When we turn the page and begin the book of Exodus, we discover that the position of the Israelites in Egypt was very vulnerable indeed, and all the power Joseph had centralised in the hands of Pharaoh would eventually be used against them.
Genesis is not about power. It is about families. Because that is where life together begins.
The Torah does not imply that there is anything easy about making and sustaining a family. The patriarchs and matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel especially – know the agony of infertility. They know what it is to wait in hope and wait again.
Sibling rivalry is a repeated theme of the book. The Psalm tells us “how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.” It might have added, “and how rare.” Almost at the beginning of the human story, Cain kills Abel. There are tensions between Sarah and Hagar that lead to Hagar and Ishmael being sent away. There is rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and his brothers, in both cases coming close to murder.
Yet there is no diminution of the significance of the family. To the contrary, it is the main vehicle of blessing. Children figure as central to God’s blessing no less than the gift of the land. It is as if the Torah were telling us, with great honesty, that yes, families are challenging. The relationship between husband and wife, and between parent and child, is rarely straightforward. But we have to work at it. There is no guarantee that we will always get it right. It is by no means clear that the parents in Genesis always got it right. But this is our most human institution.
The family is where love brings new life into the world. That in itself makes it the most spiritual of all institutions. It is also where we have our most important and lasting moral education. To quote Harvard political scientist, the late James Q. Wilson, the family is “an arena in which conflicts occur and must be managed.” People within the family “love and quarrel, share and sulk, please and disappoint.” Families, he says, “are the world in which we shape and manage our emotions.”
The Torah guides us through areas that have been identified in the 20th century as the most important arenas of conflict. Freud saw the Oedipus complex – the desire to create space for yourself by removing your father – as one of the primary drivers of human emotion. Rene Girard saw sibling rivalry as a, perhaps the, source of human violence.
I have argued that the story of the Binding of Isaac is directed precisely at the Oedipus complex. God does not want Abraham to kill Isaac. He wants him to relinquish ownership of Isaac. He wants to abolish one of the most widespread beliefs of the ancient world, known in Roman law as the principle of Patria potestas, that parents own their children. Once this has gone, and children become legal personalities in their own right, then much of the force of the Oedipus complex is removed. Children have space to be themselves.
I have argued also that the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel is directed against the source of sibling rivalry, namely mimetic desire, the desire to have what your brother has because he has it. Jacob becomes Israel when he ceases wanting to be Esau and instead stands tall as himself.
So Genesis is not a hymn to the virtue of families. It is a candid, honest, fully worked-through account of what it is to confront some of the main problems within families, even the best.
Genesis ends on these three important resolutions: first, that grandparents are part of the family and their blessing is important. Second, Jacob shows it is possible to bless all your children, even if you have a fractured relationship with some of them. Third, Joseph shows it is possible to forgive your siblings even if they have done you great harm.
One of my most vivid memories from my early days as a student was listening to the BBC Reith Lectures in 1967. The Reith lectures are the BBC’s most prestigious broadcast series: the first to deliver them was Bertrand Russell in 1948. In 1967 the lecturer was the Cambridge Professor of Anthropology, Edmund Leach. I had the privilege of delivering these lectures in 1990.
Leach called his lectures A Runaway World?, and in his third lecture he delivered a sentence that made me sit up and take notice. “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.” It was an important sign that the family was about to be dethroned, in favour of sexual liberation and self-expression. Rarely has so important an institution been abandoned so thoroughly and so lightly.
In the decades that followed, in many parts of society, cohabitation replaced marriage. Fewer people were getting married, they were getting married later, and more were getting divorced. At one point, 50% of marriages in America and Britain were ending in divorce. And 50% of children were being born outside marriage. The current figure for Britain is 42%.
The consequences have been widespread and devastating. To take one example, the birth rate in Europe today is far below replacement rate. A fertility rate of 2.1 (the average number of children born per woman of the population) is necessary for a stable population. No country in Europe has that rate. In Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, it is down to 1.3. The overall average is 1.6. Europe is maintaining its population only by immigration on an unprecedented scale. This is the death of Europe as we knew it.
Meanwhile in the United States, a significant part of the population is living in neighbourhoods with few intact families, disadvantaged children, damaged neighbourhoods, poor schools, few social facilities, and a desperate shortage of hope. This, for sections of America, is the end of the American dream.
People who look to the state, politics and power, to deliver the good, the beautiful and the true – the Hellenistic tradition – tend to regard the family and all it presupposes in terms of fidelity and responsibility as a distraction. But for people who understand not just the importance of politics but also its limitations and dangers, relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, grandparent and grandchildren, and siblings, are the most important basis of freedom. That is an insight that runs all the way through Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, summed up in his statement that “as long as family feeling was kept alive, the opponent of oppression was never alone.”
James Q. Wilson put it beautifully: “We learn to cope with the people of this world because we learn to cope with the members of our family. Those who flee the family flee the world; bereft of the former’s affection, tutelage, and challenges, they are unprepared for the latter’s tests, judgements, and demands.”
That, surprisingly, is what Genesis is about. Not about the creation of the world, which occupies only one chapter, but about how to handle family conflict. As soon as Abraham’s descendants can create strong families, they can move from Genesis to Exodus and their birth as a nation.
I believe that family is the birthplace of freedom. Caring for one another, we learn to care for the common good.
 James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense, Free Press, 1993, 162.
 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
 Edmund Leach, A Runaway World?, Oxford University Press, 1967.
 This is the thesis of two important books: Charles Murray, Coming Apart, Crown Forum, 2012, and Robert Putnam, Our Kids, Simon & Schuster, 2015. See also Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic, Basic Books, 2016.
 Democracy in America, 340.
 The Moral Sense, 163.
From the Hebrew College
Hindsight is Twenty-Twenty
By Rabbi Shira Shazeer
This Shabbat, we complete the first full week of the new secular decade. The beginning of the year 2020 has inspired many to look back over the last 10, 20, or more years, reflecting on the changes we have seen in our personal lives and in the world at large, to speculate on where the decades to come will take us, and how we will shape the future for ourselves, our children and the world. Reaching the end of Sefer Beresheet, the book of Genesis, we find Jacob in a similar mindset.
As Parshat Vayechi begins, Jacob has come to the completion of 17 years in Egypt. He has now lived as long as a guest under the protection of his son Joseph, Pharaoh’s second-in-command, as his time protecting Joseph as a child, his favorite son. Like the turn of the decade we face today, this moment for Jacob calls for reflection and construction of meaning.
Jacob senses that his life is coming to an end, and we see him looking back at the unexpected turns his life has taken, both good and bad, and looking forward to the legacy he will leave behind. Jacob is dying far from the land that he planned to pass down to his children, and with limited time and limited authority to direct the future proceedings of his family’s fulfillment of their destiny.
Abraham and Isaac, the first two patriarchs, though they lived and died in the promised land, and though each loved his other children deeply, each succeeded in passing the legacy, and their property, only to one child, carefully chosen with the help of God and the wisdom of their wives, as the next leader. Isaac and Jacob each united with their brother in the duty of burying their father, but the sibling relationship ended there.
Jacob, the final patriarch, must pass on his legacy without the gift of land, becoming the first leader to face this challenge in the diaspora. There is no land to divide or conquer, only promises to fulfill and relationships to build. Jacob, in the clarity of his old age, sees clearly that this legacy belongs to and requires the gifts of all of his children.
This parsha, then, is dedicated to Jacob drawing his family together, reminding them of their history, and setting a vision for their future. Jacob’s children’s relationships have been no less contentious than those of previous generations, but his vision at the end of his life differs from that of his father and grandfather and allows him somehow to bless all of his children.
This summer, in connection with a Hebrew College class on neurodiversity in education, I read the book Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and other Brain Gifts by Thomas Armstrong. Armstrong asserts that within challenging diagnoses (not to downplay the serious challenges they bring), there are gifts to be found, and that each person may find a niche in which they can thrive. Furthermore, he asserts, our communities benefit from supporting each individual’s strengths and from individuals’ unique capacity to see and engage with the world when they find their niche and thrive within it.
Jacob demonstrates a similar attitude as he gathers his children, asks them to return his body back to their land, and blesses each one, individually and collectively. The blessings, at least the parts that are recorded, are not all equal, and many are not easy to read. The first three read more as harsh criticism than as blessings, but rather than reading out these children, with their character flaws and behavioral problems, they are acknowledged and included. Levi, for example, whose “blessing” is that his anger be cursed and that his tribe be spread throughout the nation, we know will find a niche in the spiritual leadership of the people, once he turns from violence and aggression.
Jacob sees each of his children both for who they are, and for the qualities that their tribe will bring to the Jewish people in the future. He sees their challenges, their strengths, their potential and the niches they will construct and inhabit.
How does Jacob learn to see his children in this way? His life experience, with cycles of expectation, loss and adjustment, has taught Jacob that our people will need the flexibility to draw on what each of his children has to offer, and the wisdom to value each individual. His blessings acknowledge the stumbling blocks of each child and seek to mitigate them, allowing their best qualities to shine and preserving them for the moment when the people will need them.
These last weeks, months, and years, Jews in America have become increasingly aware of the challenges we face as a community and as a people. Twenty years ago, who could have imagined the state of the world today (politically, socially, technologically, environmentally, etc.) or the resurgence of anti-semitism in America. Thousands of years of diaspora have fostered tremendous diversity among Jews, from the way we look, to the customs we practice, to the way we understand our relationship with each other and with God. Though we are not beyond points of contention within our ranks, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need the message Jacob imparts to his children in this parsha. Maintaining our legacy in the world —the wisdom, the joy, the comfort, the community that Judaism has to offer —requires flexibility and diversity. We must value and support all of our brethren, and the ways in which they both challenge and strengthen us, as integral to our families, our communities, and our future.
They say hindsight is twenty-twenty. The beginning of 2020 looks somewhat grim. 2040 is not yet in focus. It is in our hands to shape it so that we look back with wonder at what we will have accomplished together in the next 20 years. As we say at the end of each book of the Torah, chazak chazak v’nitchazek, be strong, be strong, and may we all grow stronger.
From My Jewish Learning
Exile–The Absence Of Jewish Context
The descent into Egypt and Jacob’s death left his family in an alien culture, forced to find a context for their traditions within themselves.
BY RABBI SHIMON FELIX
Vayechi is the last portion in Genesis. In it, Jacob blesses his sons before dying, and Joseph, before his death, promises his brothers that eventually God will remember them and take them out of Egypt and back to Israel, and asks that at that time they take his bones with them, for final burial there. Thus, the Book of Genesis ends, with the stage set for the beginning of the enslavement of the next generation of Israelites.
An Interesting Opening
The portion opens with an interesting anomaly. As you know, there is no punctuation in the Torah ; the words are written as a string of letters, with no separation of any kind [only one small space appears between any two words]. The only exception is a paragraphing system. The Torah leaves spaces in between paragraphs — called parashahs — and in between the five books of the Bible.
Weekly portions always are demarcated; they begin either on a new line, or after a space large enough to have nine letters written in it. Vayechi is an exception, in that there is no space at all between the end of last week’s portion, Vayigash, and the beginning of Vayechi–the last letter of Vayigash is followed immediately by the first letter of Vayechi.
Rashi quotes two Rabbinic explanations of this unique phenomenon:
Why is this parashah ‘stumah‘ [closed, or sealed, i.e., written immediately after the end of the preceding parashah with no space in between]? Because once Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of the Israelites were closed by the oppression of their subjugation, for it was then that they [the Egyptians] began to subjugate them. Another explanation is that Jacob wanted to reveal the future to his sons, and it was closed to him.
This Rabbinic explanation sees the lack of empty space as a kind of pun; the word that describes this lack of empty space is ‘stumah.’ Stumah also describes, in two ways, what will happen to the Jewish people by the time the portion is over — their hearts and eyes will be sealed by the pressures of servitude, and Jacob himself will have the knowledge of the future denied–closed–to him, and he will be unable to reveal it to his children.
The pun works on a visual level as well — the portion is called ‘closed,’ and also looks closed, so that the physical arrangement of the start of the portion also stands as a kind of a symbol of the ‘closedness’ that will be experienced by Jacob and the Jewish people in Egypt.
The image that the pun conjures up, of the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people being closed by subjugation, is an interesting one. It paints subjugation as first and foremost and interior event, one that occurs within the person. The victim is limited, robbed of his or her ability to feel and see, that is, to relate to and interact fully with the world in which he or she lives. Jacob’s inability to see the future is part of the same syndrome–in this foreign land, Jacob literally can see no future for his children, only subjugation and servitude–non-future.
Jacob’s Death & Slavery
The obvious question, asked by many commentaries, is this: When Jacob died, the enslavement of the Jewish people was still a long way away–they would not be enslaved until after the deaths of Joseph and all his brothers and their entire generation. Why does Rashi connect the death of Jacob with the closing of the eyes and hearts, the subjugation of his family?
To answer this question, I think we must try to understand more fully the message behind the ‘closedness’ of the opening of our portion, and what it implies about the state of the Jewish people. Is the lack of space between Vayigash and Vayechi simply a visual pun, which works because the word ‘stumah’ can describe both what is going on on the page and what is going on for the Jewish people?
Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman–the Ramban, 13th-century Spain and Israel), in his preface to his commentary on the Torah, quotes a Rabbinic source which describes the Torah as having predated the creation of the world. This primordial, spiritual Torah was written in fire, black fire on white fire, and serves as a kind of mystical prototype for the actual, physical Torah, which is written in black ink on white parchment.
According to this image, the margins of the Torah, the empty parchment, the space which surrounds the written words, is also made of divine fire, and, therefore, also has a sanctity. It follows, therefore, that the parchment, the margins of our physical Torah, is not simply blank space, but, rather, like the letters, has some kind of sanctity, some kind of part to play as ‘Torah.’ If this is so, the lack of empty space at the beginning of our parashah actually represents the absence of this aspect of the Torah.
What is the nature of the sanctity of the white fire, the parchment, the white spaces in the Torah? It would seem that the notion of a divine margin would perhaps indicate that, in addition to the words, which convey the specific message of the Torah, there is also a context, a setting, holy as well, in which the Torah resides.
A relationship with the Torah is not only a relationship with the specific literal message of the text; it also includes a relationship with a setting, a context, in which one is able to relate to the Torah and its message. The black fire represents the sanctity of the Torah’s words; the white fire represents the sanctity of the Torah’s setting.
By starting the portion of Vayechi with no margin, with no white fire, the tradition is telling us something about the situation of the Jewish nation in Egypt, in exile. When the Jewish people left Israel for Egypt, they left behind their natural context; the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the land where they became a people, where their relationship with God and his covenant was initiated, and would ultimately be played out.
Losing the Link
However, as long as Jacob was alive, he served as a link to that setting, to that context, and prevented them from losing touch with it. Once he passed away, that link was lost, and, although the Egyptians did not yet begin to actually oppress the Jews, their existence became narrower, more straitened, without margin, context, and background.
When they looked around them, what they saw was an alien culture, an alien setting, which they had to close their eyes to, to shut out, in order to remain faithful to their inner vision. When they let themselves feel, what they felt was foreign, not their own, and ultimately threatening, so they stopped themselves from feeling, in order to remain true to their inner feelings. Jacob, therefore, could see no future in Egypt for his children, as their future was, in fact, not really there, but elsewhere, in an interior landscape to which they were forced to retreat.
I am reminded of my own grandfather, who, for me, also served as a kind of Jewish context in a non-Jewish American setting. Calling him Zayde (Yiddish for grandfather), seeing him reading the Yiddish newspaper, studying the weekly Torah portion, going with him to the small Hasidic shul he prayed in, created a backdrop for me when I was growing up that placed me somewhere other than my immediate American surroundings. He served as a kind of white fire, a setting for the black fire of the words I studied in my Jewish day school, words which, I think, would have felt totally unrelated to the life I was living were it not for Zayde’s presence.
Jacob’s children, with his death, were left context-less–adrift in a foreign land and culture, still in possession of the black fire of their specific traditions, but lacking the white fire of a familiar, personal, Jewish context. This is the tragedy and challenge of exile, symbolized by the lack of a margin, of space, at the beginning of Vayechi–to be condemned to live a life which can access the specifics of Jewish tradition, but without a truly Jewish context in which to live them.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
“Vayechi :The Missing Blessing”
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
In this week’s parshah, the last of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, our perfectly imperfect patriarch, comes to the end of his long and eventful life-a life shaped, you might say, by the effort to grow into his father Isaac’s blessing-the blessing stolen from his huntsman brother, Esau: to receive the dew of the heavens, the abundance of earth, to be a lord among nations, and a ruler of his kinsmen. Now, eyes “kavdu mizoken,” heavy with age, as his father’s had been at the end of his life, it is Jacob’s turn to bless his large, unruly brood, twelve sons, sired through four mothers-the beloved Rachel, the less loved Leah, and their handmaid surrogates, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Last year during the week of Parshat Vayechi, I was co-leading a retreat at Commonweal in the Pacific coastal hamlet of Bolinas, CA. Attending the retreat was a multi-generational group of artists and activists who had come together to deepen their connection to Jewish text and practice. I looked forward to chanting from Torah on Shabbat and had chosen some of these verses in which Jacob instructs and blesses his twelve sons. As is the custom in my Jewish Renewal community, I planned to introduce the verses with a kavannah, an intention, designed to “call” to the Torah whoever felt called by the essence of that aliyah, and then to seal the reading with a spontaneous mi-she’berakh, a blessing inspired by the encounter between the text, the moment, and the energy of the people present.
As I studied my verses throughout the week and meditated on possible kavannot, on the blessing that might come to all of us through Jacob’s sometimes opaque, seemingly prophetic blessings for each of his twelve sons, nothing was coming. Usually, when I’m to leyn Torah, streams of text and commentary, both old and new, flow together and mix with my intuitive sense of who will be in the room and what they might need to hear. Now I felt completely dry.
On Shabbat morning, before we gathered for our service, I walked through the pine trees to a small meditation hut perched on a windswept bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Alone there, in the quiet, resonant space filled with the loving energy of the many who had meditated there before me, I sank into a reverie.
Suddenly it was as if the ruakh ha-kodesh, the ocean winds outside and the rise and fall of breath within, had swept the heaviness from my eyes and freed an inner voice, telling me how to enter the text on this particular Shabbat, surrounded by these particular folks, many of whom were young and burning with a passion for justice for people of all races and genders and classes, and for our earth. Quickly I made my way back to our communal meeting room, where the Shabbat service was beginning.
When it came time to chant the verses of Jacob’s blessings for his sons, I explained how I had struggled to connect with the Torah’s message for this Shabbat and for our group, and how I had gone to meditate on the bluff. “What came to me,” I told them, “is that the blessing for Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, is missing. In our parshah Jacob sees and touches and honors and blesses his two grandsons, Menashe and Efraim, Joseph’s sons, and then offers blessings for each of his own twelve sons, whose offspring will become the tribes of Israel. But nowhere is Dinah-the beautiful, raped, disgraced daughter of Leah-seen or mentioned or blessed.”
As I spoke, I could sense Dinah hovering just outside the room in which Jacob lay dying. Or perhaps she was far away, in exile. Had she come down to Egypt with the rest of the family to escape the famine in Canaan? Or had she been cut out of the family? Ancient and contemporary midrashim, most notably Anita Diamant’s richly imagined The Red Tent, have attempted to fill in the bare bones of Dinah’s story, but I needed her here, this day, this Shabbat, present with her brothers at their father’s bedside, seen, acknowledged.
So I invited all of us, together, to channel the words of Dinah’s missing blessing. I can’t remember exactly what we said, it was so much of the moment. There were affirmations of Dinah’s being, expressions of comfort and understanding and honor. And there were tears. I heard one of my fellow retreat leaders, a male rabbi, sitting behind me, quietly sobbing. “Dinah, come, we welcome you! No matter what has befallen you in your life, no matter what path you have chosen, you, too, are our lineage holder! You, too deserve your father’s blessing. We honor you, we make space for you in this room, in our family. You are seen, embraced, invited.”
I felt the spirit of Dinah seep into the room. Only then, only after we had ignited the “white fire” of Torah, the invisible words emanating from between the lines of the Torah scroll and rising from our hearts and throats, was I able to chant the verses inscribed on the parchment.
Sometimes what is missing is as important than what is seemingly present. As countless generations of midrashists have taught us, it is often from these proverbial “white spaces,” these wellsprings of dream, imagination, and visionary truth, that the Torah needed for this very moment, the Torah that speaks directly to our hearts, bubbles up.
On this and on every Shabbat, let us bless our daughters and our sons, our nieces and our nephews, our grandchildren, our students-our beloved young people of every gender-not only with our words, but through the integrity with which we live and through our fierce, ongoing commitment to make this world a better, more habitable place for them to grow and come of age in. And let us never fail to witness, name, and cherish each one’s shining essence: “May God help you become exactly who you are. May the Divine bless and keep you safe; may God’s light shine upon you with grace; may you perceive the Holiness in the faces of others and in the world, lifting you up, cherishing you, making you whole.”
Khazak khazak, v’nit’khazek, may we be strong, strong, and strengthen one another.
Feeling The Presence Of God
God’s presence at Jacob’s deathbed teaches us that our reactions to the situations in which we find ourselves determine our spiritual perceptions.
BY RABBI NEAL J. LOEVINGER
Jacob and all his descendants are reunited in Egypt under Joseph’s protection. Jacob is close to death, so he blesses Joseph’s two children as his own, reversing his hands so that the younger is blessed in the manner of the older son. This time, however, there is no acrimony between brothers. Jacob calls all his sons to his deathbed and speaks a kind of ethical will and final blessing.
Jacob dies, and is taken by Joseph and the family to be buried in the Land of Israel. Thinking that Joseph may now take revenge, the brothers fear for their lives, but Joseph forgives them for selling him into slavery, reminding them that God has brought them to Egypt for a reason. Joseph dies, and asks to be taken up to Israel when the Israelite nation eventually leaves Egypt.
“…and Yisrael bowed down upon the head of the bed.” (Genesis 47:31)
Jacob, here called Yisrael, feels that his end is near, and so makes Joseph swear that he will bring Jacob’s body back to the Land of Israel after his passing. After pressuring Joseph to make this oath, he bows down on or by his sickbed.
It’s not exactly clear why or to whom Jacob would bow after making Joseph swear his oath. One could say that Jacob was bowing to Joseph himself, who was like a king in Egypt, but some commentators say that ordinarily a parent would not humble themselves before a child. Perhaps it was a gesture of acceptance; Jacob had to accept both his impending death and the fact that only Joseph had the power to carry out his desire to be buried in the Land of Israel.
Rashi [a medieval Torah commentator] says that Jacob was not bowing to Joseph, but to God:
He [Jacob] turned himself in the direction of the Divine Presence [Shechina]. From this passage [the sages] have said that the Shechina is above the head of one who is sick.
Rashi’s midrash is based on statements found in the Talmud, and it’s easy to see how this teaching would bring strength and comfort to the sick or dying. It is a beautiful theology, imagining the Presence of God “hovering” (as it were) over someone who is suffering.
This image of God helps us to understand that God can be present with us in sad or tragic times, even if “miracles” don’t seem to be forthcoming. In this case, Rashi imagines Jacob bowing out of humility before the Holy One, Whom Jacob perceived as present, near his sickbed. (Actually, in another place Rashi seems to imply that Jacob could have indeed been bowing to Joseph, but that’s for a different day.)
Commenting on this midrash, the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav offers a psychological insight into Rashi’s midrash:
The reason for this is that even a very evil person has thoughts of t’shuvah in this time [i.e., upon a sickbed]. (Source: Itturei Torah).
Teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but it comes from the word meaning “turn,” or “return.” Teshuvah involves introspection and “soul-accounting,” and making amends for whatever wrongs we have caused.
Thus R. Nahman is saying that just being sick, in itself, doesn’t bring the Shechina, but rather that God is felt to be Present when a human being is asking hard questions about life, looking deeply into his or her own soul and struggling to do the right thing. It’s the wrestling with conscience that opens up this level of spirituality, not the illness, which just gives us a chance to do the thinking.
Now, please understand, when a text says that God, or the Shechina, is present, it doesn’t mean that God is absent or missing at other times –I believe these texts are talking about what we perceive and feel. Sometimes we feel that God is closer, and sometimes farther away.
What we learn from R. Nachman is that our spiritual perception is not determined by the fact of external circumstances that, but rather how we react to our situation. “Turning” our hearts is a precondition to feeling the presence of the sacred; without openness, inwardness and humility, the Divine Presence might be close indeed, but we’d never notice.
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
From Jewish Sacred Aging
Vayechi: The Blessing of Each Day
Written by: Rabbi Richard Address
We end Genesis this week. Vayechi is a portion of great drama and passion. In it we see the conclusion of the cycle that began with Avram and progressed to Jacob and Joseph. Family dynamics in these stories reflect so much of what we see in our families. In the end, however, despite a history in many cases of deceit and rivalry, Jacob is surrounded by his family and offers his blessings, albeit varied as they were. Here are the proof texts for what we call now Ethical Wills as well as a foundational support for the need for each of us to have “the conversation” about our own end of life wishes with our families. As Genesis ends, we are presented with the reality of blessing and the healing power that these blessings may convey. As I thought about this portion, I was reminded that perhaps the most powerful of our blessings as we age, may be the “Sh’hech’yanu” which gives thanks that we have the day, that we have lived to experience this moment in time.
This reflection I think can be seen in a text from the portion in which Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph was told that his dad was dying and so he brought his sons to say goodbye. Jacob, blesses the boys in a manner that gives primary focus to the younger over the elder (a theme again of Genesis). “So he blessed them that day…” ([48:20]). Abraham Twerski, in his “Living Each Week” notes that you could read the verse as “He blessed them with that day” meaning that he hoped these boys would be able to lead lives on “that day” when they would be “unencumbered by the burdens of the past and without assuming futile worries about those future events which are not subject to change at the present”. (p.104)
In other words, here is a similar message to the one we see from Deuteronomy 29 and the emphasis on the word “ha yom” (the day). There is a sense of blessing to be able to live in the day, unencumbered by wishes to re-do the past or live in “what if” of the future, neither of which, past or future, can we control. There is a sense that we are asked to bless each day. Indeed, the tradition of waking and saying “modeh ani l’fanecha”, (I give thanks for this new day) carries with it the sense that many of us feel as we get older that each day is a blessing and presents us with another opportunity to give and receive blessings. So take with you this message from the end of Genesis, a message that each day is a blessing, that each moment of life is a gift and that to squander that gift of time is to refuse the blessing that is given to us with each new day.
Rabbi Richard F. Address
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
Jewish Book of Days
Waiting for Deliverance
There is an odd moment during Jacob’s final blessing. He pauses between the blessing of Dan and the blessing of Gad and recites: ” I wait for Your deliverance, Eternal!” Bible scholars suggest this phrase is a comma marking the halfway point of the blessing.
One traditional explanation for the phrase is that Jacob, while prophesying, sees a disturbing moment in the future and prays to avoid it (Madras Tanhuma, Va-yechi 12).
One other possibility is that this brief staccato sentence is the blessing of Dinah, daughter of Jacob. Dinah is the one child of Jacob whom he does not mention during his deathbed speech. She is the forgotten branch on the tree. Yet perhaps Dinah’s blessing is hidden in Jacob’s words. “I wait for Your deliverance” is an indication that Dinah, too, waits to be blessed.
These words invite us to have patience as we wait for new growth. They remind us that this moment of winter, whether freezing cold or balmy, contains a unique kind of deliverance, if we can open ourselves to it. Like Dinah, we too can seek out the blessings of strength, patience, and courage.
Jewish Time (Vayechi 5777)
Different cultures tell different stories. The great novelists of the nineteenth century wrote fiction that is essentially ethical. Jane Austen and George Eliot explored the connection between character and happiness. There is a palpable continuity between their work and the book of Ruth. Dickens, more in the tradition of the prophets, wrote about society and its institutions, and the way in which they can fail to honour human dignity and justice.
By contrast, the fascination with stories like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is conspicuously dualistic. The cosmos is a battlefield between the forces of good and evil. This is far closer to the apocalyptic literature of the Qumran sect and the Dead Sea scrolls than anything in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible. In these ancient and modern conflict narratives the struggle is “out there” rather than “in here”: in the cosmos rather than within the human soul. This is closer to myth than monotheism.
There is, however, a form of story that is very rare indeed, of which Tanakh is the supreme example. It is the story without an ending which looks forward to an open future rather than reaching closure. It defies narrative convention. Normally we expect a story to create a tension that is resolved on the final page. That is what gives art a sense of completion. We do not expect a sculpture to be incomplete, a poem to break off halfway, a novel to end in the middle. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is the exception that proves the rule.
Yet that is what the Bible repeatedly does. Consider the Chumash, the five Mosaic books. The Jewish story begins with a repeated promise to Abraham that he will inherit the land of Canaan. Yet by the time we reach the end of Deuteronomy, the Israelites have still not crossed the Jordan. The Chumash ends with the poignant scene of Moses on Mount Nebo (in present-day Jordan) seeing the land – to which he has journeyed for forty years but is destined not to enter – from afar.
Nevi’im, the second part of Tanakh, ends with Malachi foreseeing the distant future, understood by tradition to mean the Messianic Age:
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.
Nevi’im, which includes the great historical as well as prophetic books, thus concludes neither in the present or the past, but by looking forward to a time not yet reached. Ketuvim, the third and final section, ends with King Cyrus of Persia granting permission to the Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to their land and rebuild the Temple.
None of these is an ending in the conventional sense. Each leaves us with a sense of a promise not yet fulfilled, a task not yet completed, a future seen from afar but not yet reached. And the paradigm case – the model on which all others are based – is the ending of Bereishit in this week’s sedra.
Remember that the story of the people of the covenant begins with God’s call to Abraham to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house and travel “to a land which I will show you”. Yet no sooner does he arrive than he is forced by famine to go to Egypt. That is the fate repeated by Jacob and his children. Genesis ends not with life in Israel but with a death in Egypt:
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place”. So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Gen. 50:26)
Again, a hope not yet realised, a journey not yet ended, a destination just beyond the horizon.
Is there some connection between this narrative form and the theme with which the Joseph story ends, namely forgiveness?
It is to Hannah Arendt in her The Human Condition that we owe a profound insight into the connection between forgiveness and time. Human action, she argues, is potentially tragic. We can never foresee the consequences of our acts, but once done, they cannot be undone. We know that he who acts never quite knows what he is doing, that he always becomes “guilty” of consequences he never intended or even foresaw, that no matter how disastrous the consequences of his deed, he can never undo it . . . All this is reason enough to turn away with despair from the realm of human affairs and to hold in contempt the human capacity for freedom.
What transforms the human situation from tragedy to hope, she argues, is the possibility of forgiveness:
Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover…
Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.
Atonement and forgiveness are the supreme expressions of human freedom – the freedom to act differently in the future than one did in the past, and the freedom not to be trapped in a cycle of vengeance and retaliation. Only those who can forgive can be free. Only a civilisation based on forgiveness can construct a future that is not an endless repetition of the past. That, surely, is why Judaism is the only civilisation whose golden age is in the future.
It was this revolutionary concept of time – based on human freedom – that Judaism contributed to the world. Many ancient cultures believed in cyclical time, in which all things return to their beginning. The Greeks developed a sense of tragic time, in which the ship of dreams is destined to founder on the hard rocks of reality. Europe of the Enlightenment introduced the idea of linear time, with its close cousin, progress. Judaism believes in covenantal time, well described by Harold Fisch: “The covenant is a condition of our existence in time . . . We cooperate with its purposes never quite knowing where it will take us, for ‘the readiness is all’.” In a lovely phrase, he speaks of the Jewish imagination as shaped by “the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled”.
Tragedy gives rise to pessimism. Cyclical time leads to acceptance. Linear time begets optimism. Covenantal time gives birth to hope. These are not just different emotions. They are radically different ways of relating to life and the universe. They are expressed in the different kinds of story people tell. Jewish time always faces an open future. The last chapter is not yet written. The Messiah has not yet come. Until then, the story continues – and we, together with God, are the co-authors of the next chapter.
From Reb Shlomo
This is a very short recording of Reb Shlomo at the House of Love and Prayer 1971
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE SECRET CODE- Parshat Vayechi
On his deathbed, Joseph kept mumbling the same phrase, over and over.
…pakod yifkod… pakod yifkod…
We have reached the end of the Book of Genesis, and the final scene is Joseph’s death. Before he goes, he gathers his brothers and speaks to them one last time, in a tone that sounds almost prophetic. These are the very last lines of the book, so we’re listening carefully – and out of the twenty-five Hebrew words he says, one of them he repeats four times, almost like a mantra:
Joseph said to his brothers: “I am about to die. God attends, He will attend to you, and bring you up from this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…When God attends, he will attend to you, and you will carry my bones up from here.” (Gen 50:24-25)
Attends, He will attend. Attends, He will attend. The phrase in Hebrew is pakod yifkod (פקד יפקוד), and it’s a difficult word to translate, but it’s some combination of remembering, visiting, and taking note of – so we’ll call it “attending to.” The point is, Joseph is promising – with emphasis, as if he wants them to remember just how he said it – that God will deliver them from Egypt.
And that, of course, is exactly what God does. That deliverance will be the central story in the next book of the Torah, aptly titled: Exodus.
So okay, Joseph predicted it, or knew it would happen somehow. We knew he was a righteous man, but his final message leaves us wondering if Joseph had greater powers than we suspected, if he was secretly receiving divine messages. Intriguing.
But there is something even more remarkable about Joseph’s last words. That is, they appear again, once the actual Exodus is afoot. When God first calls upon Moses to lead the people out of Egypt, Moses is reluctant, worrying that he will not be up to the task, and that the people will not believe him. So God tells him this:
“Go and gather the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, ‘Attend, I have attended to you and what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have said, I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites…’ They will listen to your voice” (Exod. 3:16-18)
There it is again! That phrase. “Attend, I have attended..” Pakod pakadti (פקוד פקדתי). The tense is different, but it’s the same verb, and it has the same unusual doubling that we saw in Joseph’s farewell speech. It’s as if God is quoting Joseph!
That, Rashi says, is exactly what’s happening. He says that this is what God means when he says “They will listen to your voice.” He won’t have to convince them.
They will listen to your voice – On their own, because you will speak to them using this wording, and they will immediately listen to you, as this sign has been passed down from Jacob and Joseph – that with this wording they will be redeemed.
Rashi is saying that Joseph wasn’t just telling his brother what would happen; he was giving them a code word they could use to know when it was truly about to happen. The one who came to them and uttered the secret phrase – pakod yifkod – that one would lead them out of Egypt.
And remember, it isn’t just the word – it’s the way he says it. As Nachmanides explains, picking up on Rashi’s comments:
That is why Joseph kept saying pakod yifkod, with the doubling, to tell them that this was a tradition from his father. And in the Midrash it says: Why will they listen to your voice? Because they had a tradition regarding the redemption, that if a redeemer should come and speak to them with the double pakod, this would be the true redeemer.
But wait a minute. Isn’t that a little too easy? All it takes to be recognized as the true redeemer is to say the password… but everybody knows the password! So anyone could come along and claim to be a messenger from God. What’s so impressive about Moses uttering these words when they are part of a long-standing tradition? Nachmanides considers this question, and gives an brilliant answer:
You may ask, why would they believe him? Maybe Moses had heard this tradition just as they had! …If he had grown up in his father’s house and come and said these things, they would not have believed him, because they would have said, “His father taught him this! Joseph passed it to Levi, and Levi to Kahat, and Kahat to Amram [Moses’ father].” Therefore, he was taken from his father’s house, so that when he went and said these things to Israel, they would believe him.
Nachmanides is reminding us that Moses wasn’t just any Israelite. He was the boy sent down the river and drawn out by Pharaoh’s daughter, to be taken into the palace and raised as an Egyptian. He had been separated from his own people and from his culture, and he had no knowledge of their traditions. He wasn’t one of them; he was, as the movie calls him, the Prince of Egypt.
So when that man comes before them and says, pakod yifkod, ‘Attend, God will attend to you.’ – the sacred phrase, a phrase he could not have known – then they knew. He was the one. The time had finally come. Redemption was at hand.
And God had orchestrated this whole thing. God had either given Joseph a secret code or, even more remarkable, God had borrowed Joseph’s words and turned them into a secret code. And then He had taken Moses out of his house and had him sent to live among the Egyptians, all so that when Moses returned as an outsider, and pronounced the right words, he would be recognized as the one they had been waiting for.
Now this is a dazzling bit of parshanut. The rabbis have constructed an elaborate mythology by carefully noting the recurrence of this unusual phrase. We might have overlooked this echoing, just read past it. But once they have pointed it out, it seems so clear and deliberate, as if the Torah itself were encoding hidden messages, and waiting for us to decipher them.
But why? This secret code certainly adds a layer of mystery and excitement to the story; it heightens the drama of the Exodus, the epic moment of Moses’ return. But is all of this linguistic interconnectedness just in the service of good storytelling?
We have not fully cracked the code without considering the meaning of the word itself. It wasn’t just repetition itself that Joseph passed on, after all, but the repetition of this particular word – pakod, Attending to. So what is the significance of that word?
To understand that, the best place to turn is to the first place this word is used in the Torah. That is back in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 21:
The Lord attended to Sarah as He had promised, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had spoken. And Sarah conceived and bore a son…
This is probably the most well-known usage of pakad, “attended to,” and it describes the miraculous conception of Sarah and Abraham in their old age. These two had lived a life of great meaning and purpose, and had shared a partnership for decades – but there was always something missing. They were, to their great sorrow, unable to have a child.
And then, in what seemed like the twilight of their lives, when all chances of conceiving had long passed, God suddenly announces that they will have a son.
And at first, they do not believe it. They just laugh. Such things are not possible. Their time has passed. They’ve given up.
But then it happens. The Lord attended to Sarah. And she conceived, and gave birth to Isaac. In her joy, she exclaims:
“Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children! Yet I have borne a son in his old age.” (Gen. 21:7)
Who would have thought it possible? Who would have believed such a thing could happen? Yet here it is. Anything can happen when God attends to it.
That is the message that Joseph leaves his brothers. And that is the message that Moses delivers to the people. This is a people, remember, who have been enslaved for hundreds of years. They have no power, no weapons. They have nowhere else to go. There is no reason to believe that they will ever be free.
Yet Moses says to them:
The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, ‘Attend, I have attended to you…’
And they believe him. Because this is more than just a secret code he has pronounced. This is an invocation of the God who attended to Sarah, from whom they are all descended. That story they know. They have never witnessed God delivering an entire nation. How could they be expected to believe such a thing could happen? But they do believe in a God that answers personal prayers, a God who attends to human suffering, and who makes the impossible, possible.
Attend, I have attended…
Just as I have attended to your Mother Sarah, so will I attend to you. Just as I brought forth the birth of your forefather Isaac, so will I bring forth the birth of a nation. He who has delivered, shall deliver again.
And they listened to his voice.
From Rabbi David Ingber
Embrace the Word
When is it permitted to tell a lie? (Vayechi 5775)
After the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers were afraid. Years earlier, when he had revealed his true identity to them, he appeared to have forgiven them for selling him as a slave. That was the theme of last week’s essay.
Yet the brothers were not wholly reassured. Maybe Joseph did not mean what he said. Perhaps he still harboured resentment. Might the only reason he had not yet taken revenge was respect for Jacob. There was a convention in those days that there was to be no settling of scores between siblings in the lifetime of the father. We know this from an earlier episode. After Jacob had taken his brother’s blessing, Esau says, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen. 27: 41). So the brothers come before Joseph and say:
“Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. (Gen. 50: 16-17)
The text makes it as plain as possible that the story they told Joseph was a lie. If Jacob had really said those words he would have said them to Joseph himself, not to the brothers. The time to have done so was on his deathbed in the previous chapter. The brothers’ tale was a “white lie.” Its primary aim was not to deceive but to ease a potentially explosive situation. Perhaps that is why Joseph wept, understanding that his brothers still thought him capable of revenge.
The sages derived a principle from this text. Mutar le-shanot mipnei ha-shalom: “It is permitted to tell an untruth (literally, “to change” the facts) for the sake of peace.” A white lie is permitted in Jewish law.
This is not the only place where the sages invoked this principle. They even attributed it to God himself. When the angels came to visit Abraham to tell him and Sarah that they were about to have a child, “Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’” God then asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’” (Gen. 18: 12-13).
God did not mention that Sarah believed that not only was she too old to have a child. So was Abraham (this turned out to be quite untrue: Abraham had six more children after Sarah’s death). The sages inferred that God did not mention it because he did not want there to be bad feeling between husband and wife. Here too the sages said: it is permitted to change for the sake of peace.
It is clear that the sages needed both episodes to establish the principle. Had we only known about the Sarah case, we could not infer that it is permitted to tell a white lie. God did not tell a white lie about Sarah. He merely did not tell Abraham the whole truth.
Had we only known about the case of Joseph’s brothers, we could not have inferred that what they did was permitted. Perhaps it was forbidden, and that is why Joseph wept. The fact that God himself had done something similar is what led the sages to say that the brothers were justified.
What is at stake here is an important feature of the moral life, despite the fact that we seem to be speaking of no more than social niceties: tact. The late Sir Isaiah Berlin pointed out that not all values coexist in a kind of platonic harmony. His favourite example was freedom and equality. You can have a free economy but the result will be inequality. You can have economic equality, communism, but the result will be a loss of freedom. In the world as currently configured, moral conflict is unavoidable.
This was an important fact, though one about which Judaism seems never to have been in doubt. There is, for example, a powerful moment in Tanakh when King David’s son Absalom mounts a coup d’etat against his father. David was forced to flee. Eventually there was a battle between Absalom’s troops and David’s. Absalom, who was handsome and had fine hair, was caught by it when it became entangled in the branches of a tree. Left handing there, Joab, captain of David’s army, killed him.
When David heard the news he was overcome with grief: “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18: 33). Joab is brutal in his words to the king: “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life … You love those who hate you and hate those who love you … Now go out and encourage your men” (2 Sam. 19: 6-8). David’s grief at the loss of his son conflicts with his responsibilities as head of state and his loyalty to the troops who have saved his life. Which comes first: his duties as a father or as a king?
The existence of conflicting values means that the kind of morality we adopt and society we create depend not only on the values we embrace but also on the way we prioritise them. Prioritising equality over freedom creates one kind of society – Soviet communism for example. Prioritising freedom over equality leads to market economics. People in both societies may value the same things but they rank them differently in the scale of values, and thus how they choose when the two conflict.
That is what is at stake in the stories of Sarah and Joseph’s brothers. Truth and peace are both values, but which do we choose when they conflict? Not everyone among the rabbinic sages agreed.
There is, for example, a famous argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai as to what to say about the bride at a wedding. The custom was to say that “The bride is beautiful and graceful.” Members of the school of Shammai, however, were not prepared to say so if, in their eyes, the bride was not beautiful and graceful. For them the supreme value was the Torah’s insistence on truth: “Keep far from falsehood” (Ex. 23: 7).
The school of Hillel did not accept this. Who was to judge whether the bride was beautiful and graceful? Surely the bridegroom himself. So to praise the bride was not making an objective statement that could be tested empirically. It was simply endorsing the bridegroom’s choice. It was a way of celebrating the couple’s happiness.
Courtesies are often like this. Telling someone how much you like the gift they have brought, even if you don’t, or saying to someone, “How lovely to see you” when you were hoping to avoid them, is more like good manners than an attempt to deceive. We all know this, and thus no harm is done, as it would be if we were to tell a lie when substantive interests are at stake.
More fundamental and philosophical is an important Midrash about a conversation between God and the angels as to whether human beings should be created at all:
Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, ‘Let him be created.’ Others said, ‘Let him not be created.’ That is why it is written: ‘Mercy and truth collided, righteousness and peace clashed’ (Psalms 85:11).
Mercy said, ‘Let him be created, because he will do merciful deeds.’
Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehood.’
Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.’
Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarrelling.’
What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth and threw it to the ground.
The angels said, ‘Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground.’
Thus it is written, ‘Let truth spring up from the earth’ (Psalms 85:12).
This is a challenging text. What exactly were the angels saying? What does it mean to say that “God took truth and threw it to the ground?” And what happened to the claim made by the angel of Peace that humans “will never cease quarrelling”?
I interpret it as meaning that humans are destined to conflict so long as contending groups each claim to have a monopoly of the truth. The only way they will learn to live at peace is by realising that they, finite as all humans are, will never in this life achieve truth as it is in Heaven. For us, truth is always partial, fragmentary, the view from somewhere and not, as philosophers sometimes say, “the view from nowhere”.
This deep insight is, I believe, the reason why the Torah is multi-perspectival, why Tanakh contains so many different kinds of voices, why Mishnah and Gemarra are structured around argument, and why Midrash is built on the premise that there are “seventy faces” to Torah. No other civilization I know has had so subtle and complex an understanding of the nature of truth.
Nor has any other so valued peace. Judaism is not and never was pacifist. National self-defence sometimes requires war. But Isaiah and Micah were the first visionaries of a world in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” Isaiah is the poet laureate of peace.
Given the choice, when it came to interpersonal relations the sages valued peace over truth, not least because truth can flourish in peace while it is often the first casualty in war. So the brothers were not wrong to tell Joseph a white lie for the sake of peace within the family. It reminded them all of the deeper truth that not only their human father, now dead, but also their heavenly Father, eternally alive, wants the people of the covenant to be at peace, for how can Jews be at peace with the world if they are not at peace with themselves?
 Yevamot 65b.
 Midrash Sechel Tov, Toledot, 27: 19.
 Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two concepts of liberty,’ in Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy and Ian Harris, Liberty: Incorporating Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. See also the important work by Stuart Hampshire, Morality and Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983.
 Ketubot 16b.
 Bereishit Rabbah 8: 5.
 Thomas Nagel, The View From Nowhere, New York, Oxford University Press, 1986. The only person to have achieved a non-anthropocentric, God’s-eye-view of creation, was Job in chs. 38-41 of the book that bears his name.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
SHABBAT PARASHAT – פרשת השבוע
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz, Associate Professor of Rabbinics
“The Truth and Nothing But the Truth?”
Torah Reading: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Haftarah Reading: I Kings 2:1 – 2:12
When Jacob gathers his sons to his deathbed, he opens with this exhortation: “Gather round, that I may tell you what will befall you in the aftertime of days” (49:1). At the conclusion of his speaking, the Torah tells us, “this is what their father spoke to them; he blessed them, according to what belonged to each as blessing, he blessed them” (49:28). Already, then, a discontinuity between the opening of Jacob’s discourse and its conclusion should be apparent. What is forecast to be a forecast is, once concluded, summed up as something else entirely, a blessing. But when we turn to the actual content of the discourse that comes between these two verses, matters of description become more complicated still.
In fact, in order to highlight the problem, I have deliberately chosen to use Everett Fox’s very literalist translation above, instead of that offered by Etz Hayim and several other commonly used translations. In the case of verse 1, the differences are not that significant, but here is how Etz Hayim translates verse 28: “and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” Given that the root b,r,ch, which usually indicates blessing, is used three times in the verse, why translate it differently?
The editors of Etz Hayim remark in their commentary that the root “here is rendered ‘bade farewell’ because not all of the tribes received blessings” (p. 305). In fact, the word b,r,ch itself appears in the body of Jacob’s speech only in reference to Joseph (verses 22-26) – six times! – though the messages given to several other brothers are also clearly positive wishes for success and prosperity. But what are we to make of Jacob’s address to Reuven, in which he reminds his son of his sinful behavior with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine/wife, calling him “unstable as water” and telling him “you shall excel no more” (verse 4)? Similarly, Jacob speaks to Shimon and Levi together (saying they “are a pair”), castigating them for anger and violence and lawlessness (verses 5-7), an indictment widely understood a reference to their (sneak) attack on the city of Shechem, described in Gen. 34.
I would like to suggest that the questions that have been raised so far are all interconnected. They are (or at least include):
Why does Jacob say he intends to give his sons a vision of their future, but then seems to speak of something else?
Why is the speech described as a blessing at its end, when some elements of it – especially the addresses to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi – do not read as blessings, but quite the opposite, as condemnations?
Why does Jacob address Reuven, Shimon, and Levi in this fashion?
From as early as the composition of the classical midrashic collection, Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis were aware of the first of these questions, and sought to answer it. In 98:2 of that work, it is suggested that just as Jacob was intending to reveal secrets of the future to his sons, this prophetic information was hidden from him; a similar tradition appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a, and is cited by Rashi. Ibn Ezra, another medieval commentator, takes issue with this approach, however. He notes, as we too have, that these verses cannot be a blessing, for “where are the blessings of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi.” Rather, these verses are a form of prophecy, and only afterwards did Jacob bless all his sons. This then, also addresses the latter two questions, by suggesting that verse 28 itself is the moment at which Jacob blesses all his sons, together. This possibility appears, for example, in Genesis Rabbah 99:4 (as found in the Soncino translation):
AND HE BLESSED THEM is already written; why add, EVERYONE ACCORDING TO HIS BLESSING HE BLESSED THEM? But because he had blessed them, comparing Judah to a lion, Dan to a serpent, Naphtali to a hind, and Benjamin to a wolf; he subsequently included them altogether as one, declaring them all to be lions and serpents. The proof lies in this: Dan shall be a serpent (ib. 17); yet he [Moses] calls him a lion: Dan is a lion’s whelp (Deut.XXXIII, 22).
More intriguing to me, however, is another possible answer, offered in Etz Hayim in the commentary to verse 4, in which Jacob says bluntly to Reuven that he has “brought disgrace” through his behavior:
What sort of blessing is this? Perhaps the greatest blessing is to have someone who cares about you point out your faults. (299)
In a similar vein, some commentators have noted that if one reads closely, one will see that Jacob criticizes Shimon and Levi’s behavior, rather than Shimon and Levi themselves. By speaking bluntly and truthfully about their acts in the past, Jacob hopes to guide them on a different, more peaceful path in the future. Here again, truth-telling, though painful, can also be seen as a form of blessing.
So then – is truthfulness always the best path?
One possible answer to that question takes us back to the question of Jacob’s prophecy that may not be a prophecy. According to the tradition that Jacob intended to reveal the future to his sons, but was ultimately denied the ability to do so, why might that be? Once again, Etz Hayim offers an intriguing source:
Perhaps, when Jacob looked into the future, he saw the quarreling and bloodshed that would befall his descendants, and the spirit of prophecy cannot abide when there is grief and sadness (Naftali of Ropshitz). (299)
Or, what I take from this source – there are times when it is not appropriate to reveal the truth. In this case, not only is Jacob not to reveal the truth to his sons, but the truth of the future, because of its difficult nature, is to be hidden from Jacob himself! The effect of even a small glimpse is so distressing as to cut off Jacob’s ability to access any further vision. Perhaps sometimes we need to be protected from the full truth. Indeed, we know from elsewhere in the Torah that even God may resort to the “white lie” on occasion. Compare, for example, Gen. 18:12 and 13. When Sarah contemplates the possibility of bearing a child, she laughs at the thought “with my husband so old.” When God reports her words to Abraham, however, Sarah’s statement becomes “old as I am?” With a simple change from Sarah’s true statement, God protects Abraham’s feelings and marital accord between Abraham and Sarah.
Nor is this the only place in our parashah where we encounter this vexing problem of when it is appropriate to tell the truth and when a “white lie” might be in order. After Jacob dies, and his sons take his body back to Canaan for burial, once they are all back in Egypt, Gen. 50:15-17 relates:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly…'” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.
Are the brothers telling the truth? It must be noted that if Jacob did indeed say this to his sons (other than Joseph), there is no other record of it elsewhere in the narrative. In fact, if Jacob had intended to deliver such a message, we might have expected him to deliver it directly to Joseph, but there is no record of any conversation of that sort either.
Which raises another question – did Jacob ever know the truth of how Joseph came to Egypt? Think again of Jacob’s last discourse. If we presume that Jacob is telling the truth, as he knows it, about and to his sons, why mention other sins and failings while overlooking this one, one all participated in? Relatedly, a midrashic tradition asks, why did Joseph have to be told that his father was ill (48:1)? Did he not visit and keep in touch with his father? One possible answer is that no, he did not, precisely so that there would never be an occasion on which he was alone with his father, when his father might ask him uncomfortable questions about what happened to him. If this read of the story is correct (Jacob never found out the full truth), moreover, then we must presume that the brothers are not telling the truth to Joseph.
Should Joseph have told the truth to his father – presuming he did not? Are the brothers justified in lying to Joseph – if that’s what they did? Are there ever easy or obvious answers to such questions? Perhaps we start by being as honest with ourselves about our motives as we can be, by being as honest as we can about the possible outcomes for ourselves and others from withholding the truth, telling part of the truth, or speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth. So help us God.
From Rabbi Zelig Golden
From Darkness to Light, Reconnecting To our Food:
Zelig Golden | December 21, 2007
In Va-Yechi, our creation story culminates with Jacob on his deathbed blessing his sons. (Gen. 49.) He highlights characteristics that are unique to each of his twelve sons, the fathers of our twelve tribes. According to Rashi, five of these blessings focus on the agricultural specificity of each tribe’s territory in the Land of Israel.
For Zevulun, Jacob promises that he “shall dwell at the edge of the sea. His will be a shore for ships…” (Gen. 49:13.) The Talmud Megillah tells how the beaches of Zevulun were home to the molluscs from which techelet dye (for the blue tallis thread) could be extracted. (Talmud Bavli Megillah 6b.) His territory was agriculturally poor but a lucrative resource for snail-farming.
Jacob’s blessing of Judah describes a land of vines and garments dyed with wines. (Gen. 49: 11.) For Issachar, “He saw a resting place, that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant,” (Gen. 49:15.) Rashi writes, “He saw that his part of the land was blessed and would produce good fruit.” (Rashi, Gen. 49:15, s.v. vayar minucha ki tov) Issachar, whose tribe’s destiny was immersion in Torah learning, was bestowed a place where fruits grew in abundance, making the food life easy and devotion to study practical.
As Rabbi Julian Sinclair teaches, Rashi shows us that each region of Israel has its own native crops, that each tribe, connected to different regions of the Land, is also connected to different crops – Judah grows grapes, Asher grows olives for oil, Issachar harvests fruit. A biblical Jew knew its food with a direct relationship to the place and the people who brought it forth from the earth.
Today, in modern Israel and the U.S., we have all but lost such intimate connection to the land, the source of our food. For over 100 years, the “Green Revolution” has brought us industrial agriculture and the global comodification of food. Yes, we eat mangoes in Berkeley, and we have abundance in January, but we have also lost a primal connection to our source.
It is striking that the Torah raises the land, food connection during this final story of Genesis. Due to famine, we have become dislocated from our land, beginning nearly two centuries of life in Egypt, most of which will be spent enslaved. The end of Genesis, thus marks a distinct movement toward the darkness.
In the first moments of the Torah, however, we are taught that from the darkness comes forth the light. (Gen 1:2-3.) Thus, our exile to Egypt is the planting of the seeds of our return to ourselves, and to our land. Likewise, our current disconnection from land is merely the ground upon which we are planting the seeds of renewed connection. This summer, for example, Chochmat Ha Lev piloted the first west coast Tuv Ha’Aretz (“best of the land”) program, connecting our community to Eat Well Farm to bring us fresh produce every week. And next December, Hazon (www.hazon.org), the organization that brings you Tuv Ha’Aretz, will bring the annual Jewish Food Conference, the heart of the Jewish Food Movement, right here to the Bay Area (Dec. 25-28, mark your calendars!).
As we pass through the winter equinox, literally the darkest time of the year, the Torah teaches us that even as connection to land is lost, we must remember and begin our return. Just as we begin our return to longer sunnier days, let Jacob’s blessing be a reminder to begin the return to our connection with land and food.
[Ideas and references in this commentary are borrowed from Rabbi Julian Sinclair, “Eating Holy Food in a Holy Way,” Eitz Chayim Hee, A weekly internet Torah Commentary for Environmental Learning and Action.]
From the Maqam Project
Something I want to reveal to my children but it is closed off to me — elusive, unfinished I want to give it over to my children but I cannot.
What I do give over: blessings — poetry, visions spoken in metaphor but the ultimate redemption — remains closed off to me.
Closed off and elusive the ends of things no ends at all, no beginnings. Seams the illusion of all endings all beginnings all arrivals all starts –
Just this: journey and movement and the inevitable rise and fall no starts and stops at all it doesn’t begin and it doesn’t end —
The great river flows out of itself into itself.
Don’t be afraid.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
THE TWO PROMISES: ON THE BONES OF JACOB AND JOSEPH
Parashat Vayechi, the Torah portion at the very end of the Book of Genesis, begins with a promise and ends with a promise. The Torah portion describes the last years of Jacob in Egypt. It begins with the promise Joseph makes to Jacob: an oath that he will bury his father Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. As Jacob says: “Bury me with my fathers…” It ends with the promise that Jacob’s brothers make to Joseph that when their descendants leave Egypt, Joseph’s bones will accompany them. As Joseph says: “Carry up my bones from here.” What can we learn from these two promises?
Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most.
The promise to Jacob relates to the past. In his deathbed request, Jacob asserts that he does not wish to be buried in Egypt. He emphasizes that he wants to be brought to the cave of Machpelah, specifying “in the field of Ephron the Hittite” so there will be no mistake about what he means. The cave of Machpelah is the family tomb, which Abraham bought from the residents of Canaan so Sarah could have a resting place. Jacob desires to be rejoined with the land on which he lived, and with those whom he loves most. After blessing his children, Jacob’s thoughts turn to his wife Leah, parents Rebekah and Isaac, and grandparents Abraham and Sarah. He wishes to be buried with them, observing the tradition of his family and mingling his bones with those of his ancestors. He must depend on his children to fulfill this longing.
Jacob’s children, by observing this last wish, do him chesed: great kindness. The sons of Jacob, who have hurt their father terribly in concealing from him that Joseph was sold into Egypt, attempt to set right their relationship to the past by honoring Jacob’s wishes. Jacob’s funeral is full of pomp and circumstance, as the family processes back to Canaan to inter the patriarch. Midrash Tanhuma on Parashat Vayechi notes that Joseph makes sure his father’s funeral is fit for a king—and receives the reward that Moses himself will see to Joseph’s bones.
The promise to Joseph, however, relates to the future. At the end of Genesis, Joseph is old and about to die. He will be buried in a coffin in Egypt, probably because he is an important Egyptian official and Pharaoh would not consent to bury him in the land of Canaan. Joseph’s relatives promise, on behalf of their descendants, that when God causes the Hebrew tribes to leave Egypt, they will retrieve Joseph’s bones and carry them to the land of Israel.
Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for.
Joseph does not specify a burial site; he only says: “Carry up my bones from here.” Joseph seems less concerned with being reunited with those he loves than with giving the nation of Israel something to live for. By exacting this promise, Joseph makes sure that the people must remember who he is, remember where he is buried, and remember their connection to the land of Canaan. The oath to Joseph means his family cannot forget who they are. Joseph is doing a chesed for his descendants: his deathbed request makes the Exodus possible. The Midrash Tanhuma quoted above indicates that while others are packing to leave Egypt, Moses is searching for the bones of Joseph so that the Exodus can unfold as it should.
These two promises reflect two aspects of our relationship to Torah. The central word of Jacob’s promise is kivru, bury, a word that indicates descent or downward motion. The promise to Jacob teaches us to show loyalty and love to our ancestors, respecting the people, ideas, and places they loved. One aspect of Torah is the call to live in harmony with the past. The other aspect of Torah is the call to prepare for those that will come after us by creating a world and a heritage that our distant descendants will find beautiful, useful and uplifting. The central word of Joseph’s promise is veha’alitem: lift up. This promise to Joseph, a word that indicates ascent or upward motion, teaches us to show love and loyalty to the generations to come. Our connection to humans, to the world, and to the Holy One reverberates between these two promises.
May we too fulfill these promises. May we care for the planet, for its people, and for our tradition in such a way that we extend our love to the past, and give those who come afterward something to treasure. May we embody the mystery of Joseph’s bones by becoming partners in creating the future world.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
The Mystical Power of Minyan (2005/5766)
Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather round . . .” (Bereisheet/Genesis 49:1)
Why does Jacob ask his sons to gather into a single group in order to receive their individual deathbed blessings from him? Why does Midrash teach that they answer by praying the Shema together? What does this teach us about praying as a group?
Zohar turns to the verse “He has turned to the prayer of the solitary one and has not spurned their prayer” (Psalms 102:18). When the prayer of an individual comes before the Blessed Holy One, God “turns it over” – scrutinizes that personís sins and virtue. But a congregational prayer includes many prayers of those who are not virtuous, and yet they all enter the presence of the King without the King “turning over” – overturning – their sins! Jacob’s sons pray together hoping that their father will overlook their sins and give each a loving blessing.
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero looks towards the verse “God forgives the . . . remnant of God’s heritage” (Micah 7:18). The Hebrew word “remnant” can also be understood to mean “oneís own flesh.” All people are blood relatives, and all souls are united. Thus each person should desire the well-being of all others. Ideally, everyone will uphold the mitzvah of “love your neighbor as yourself” and act with kindness and forgiveness. Because the souls of each member of a minyan are connected with one another, the prayer of a minyan is equal in power to 100 prayers. Jacob’s sons pray together to show that they have forgiven one another the abuses of youth and understand that they are stronger as a loving unit.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Vayechi: The Twelve Tribes
12 Paths in Life
In this week’s Torah portion – which closes the book of Genesis – we read how Jacob, in his last days, blesses his children, the twelve tribes. In these blessings lie many secrets foretelling events to come. As the verse tells us: And Jacob called to his sons, and said: “Gather together, that I may tell you what will happen with you in the end of days.”
As a blueprint for life these blessings have much to teach us. Each of the twelve tribes reflects a unique path in life. As the verse tells us at the conclusion of the blessings: All these are the twelve tribes of Israel… every one according to his blessing he blessed them (Vayechi 49:28). What is the meaning of the words “every one according to his blessing?” “Blessing” in Hebrew also means to ‘draw down’ (‘hamshocho’), from the root ‘mavrich.’ Every one of the tribes has his particular journey, his specific energy which he must manifest in this world.
Indeed, our sages teach that the Re(e)d sea split into twelve paths, providing a separate path for each of the twelve tribes.
To understand these twelve paths we must study the different ways that the tribes are described in the Torah. We find three descriptions for the tribes. First, when they are named by their mothers (Vayeitzei – Genesis 29-30; 35:18), each child/tribe is given a name with a particular meaning for a specific reason. Second, when Jacob blesses them (in this week’s portion). And finally, when Moses blesses them at the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 33:6-25).
In addition the tribes are named and specified many times in the Torah – when they enter Egypt, when they leave Egypt, during their 40 year journey through the Sinai wilderness they travel and camp as tribes, their Temple dedication offerings are repeated twelve times (though they brought the same offerings) to emphasize the twelve unique paths.
Here is one of many applications of these twelve paths, based primarily on this week’s blessings.
Reuven – The First
Shimeon – The Aggressor
Levi – The Cleric
Judah – The Leader
Dan – The Judge
Naftali – The Free Spirit
Gad – The Warrior
Asher – The Prosperous One
Issachar – The Scholar
Zevulun – The Businessperson
Joseph – The Sufferer
Menashe – Reconnection
Efraim – Transformation
Benjamin – The Ravenous Consumer
Reuven – the first-born (‘bechor’) – represents the powerful energy of everything that comes first. The first fruit, the first moments of the day, the beginning of every creation – has enormous amount of energy. “Unstable like water,’ this power can go either way: If harnessed properly, the ‘bechor’/Reuven energy can change worlds; if abused it can destroy. Like water, it can be the source of life, but if left unchanneled it erodes its environment and can flood its surroundings.
Shimeon is aggressive gevurah – the antithesis of Reuven’s chesed/water. The fierce anger and cruel wrath that can result from unbridled gevurah must be eliminated lest it turns into weapons of violence that consume the person and all those he comes in contact with. [The lesson of this today is self understood].
Levi is the tribe chosen to serve in the Temple. “Levi” also means ‘attached’ or ‘joined’. Levi is the personality of dedicating your life to serving a higher calling. Of freeing yourself from your bounds to material survival and attaching yourself to Divine service (see Rambam, end of Hilchot Shemittah v’Yovel).
Judah means acknowledgement (‘hodaah,’ as in ‘modeh ani’). Judah’s name also includes the four letters of the Divine name Havaya. Judah is the leader; his descendants would be the kings of Israel, beginning with King David and concluding with Moshiach. Judah is the path of selflessness (‘bittul’) – the most vital ingredient in true leadership.
Dan is the path of law and order (‘dan’ means to judge). Objective justice is the heart of any civilization.
Naftali is the free spirit personality. Like a ‘deer running free’ – breaking out of the status quo – independence is a necessary component in growth. Yet, this free spiritedness must always take care to ‘deliver words of beauty.’
Gad is the warrior archetype. Expanding on the justice of Dan, Gad is ready to fight for his beliefs. The warrior is necessary to both defend our cherished values and to protect our freedoms.
Asher is both prosperity and pleasure. Asher is the dimension of blessing beyond the norm – to be given more than what is necessary for survival. Asher is the personality of not just getting what you need, but also enjoying it.
Issachar is the scholar. Scholarship provides wisdom, clarity and direction. It is the foundation of any system. Issachar is the dedication to immerse in study and education.
Zevulun is the merchant, the businessperson personality. His role is to enter the marketplace and redeem the Divine sparks within the material world (the ‘secret treasure hidden in the sand’ – Deuteronomy 33:19). Zevulun complements Issachar; they forge a partnership: Zevulun supports the scholar, he funds houses of scholarship, which earns him a right to partake in the reward of Issachar’s studies.
Joseph is the element of suffering in life. Yet, he not only survives; he thrives. He achieves greatness through his challenges. He overcomes all adversary and becomes a great leader, saving his entire generation. Despite his corrupt environment, he maintains his spiritual integrity. The powerful light that emerges from darkness in Joseph divides into two dimensions – his two sons: Menashe and Efraim:
Menashe represents the ability to not succumb to the powers of the ‘mitzraim-constraints’ that want to make you forget your spiritual roots. To remain connected regardless of the challenges.
Efraim takes it even further. It is not enough to just survive in an alien environment, but to thrive – to ‘be fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ Efraim is the power to transform the difficulties into Divine power.
Benjamin is hungry, hungry for the Divine sparks in all of existence. So, like a ‘ravenous wolf’ Benjamin recognizes that his mission is to passionately seek out the Divine energy embedded in matter, devour it, consume and elevate it.
Twelve tribes. Twelve paths. All necessary to reach our destination.
Which personality are you? What part do you need to develop?
May we discover our path and live up to it. And may that help us reach the time — at the end of days – when we will gain clarity as to who belongs to what tribe (see Rambam Hilchot Melochim 12:3). Perhaps the significance of this revelation is the crystallization that will come in the time when the ‘world will be filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.’
From Rav Kook
Vayechi: Jacob’s Superior Blessing
Before his death, Jacob blessed each of his sons. He blessed his beloved son Joseph with:
“Blessings of heaven above, blessings of the abyss lying beneath; blessings of plenty and children. The blessings of your father are superior to those of my parents, until the desired hills of eternity.” (Gen. 49:25-26)
Why did Jacob claim that his blessings were better than those of his parents?
What did he mean by the phrase “until the desired hills of eternity”?
Vision of a Future World
The blessings of Abraham and Sarah were revealed in the miracles that God performed for them – a son born to them at an advanced age, Divine protection when Pharaoh kidnapped Sarah. Isaac and Rebecca were similarly blessed with miraculous intervention when dealing with the Philistine king Abimelekh.
Jacob prayed that his son should also be blessed with miraculous protection when needed. This is what he meant by “blessings of heaven above.” However, Jacob stipulated that his blessings should be revealed within the context of the natural physical world. Thus, he emphasized that they should also be “blessings of the abyss lying beneath.”
This is truly an amazing blessing, reflecting a higher level of spiritual influence. Unlike a miracle that disrupts the physical realm, Jacob prayed that the physical world itself will be elevated and uplifted.
In fact, Jacob’s blessing is a vision of the World to Come. He foresaw a world beyond simple miracles, a world whose material boundaries are infinitely expanded. Thus, Jacob explained that his blessing was “until the desired hills of eternity.” In other words, this vision belongs to a future world, a universe infinitely elevated and boundless.
(adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. II, p. 203)
From American Jewish World Service
Shira Fischer MD/PhD
At points of transition, particularly at the end of life, it is natural to look back at what we have accomplished and ahead to what we are giving the next generation. Some of us will bequeath money—directed towards a specific cause, through a foundation or in a building. Others will pass on our ideas through the institutions we found or the books we publish, or through the memories of our students and children. These are the ways that we hope our legacy—the things we lived for in life, our values and commitments—will live on.
So seemed to be Jacob’s mindset as he lay on his deathbed, reviewing his life. He knew his children would be his legacy, already a large number and Divinely destined to grow.1 He therefore proceeded with what is arguably the most poetic portion of B’reishit, his description of what will happen to each son “at the end of days.” Some sons he praised for living his values. For example, he noted Judah’s leadership among his brothers and other peoples, and he praised the tenacity of Gad and Dan by sneaking the root of his own name—akeiv, “ankle,”—into their blessings. Others he critiqued for failing to embody his values, as with his rebuke of Simon and Levi for their violence in the city of Sh’chem. His blessings to other sons suggest a reflective hope that his children’s lives will be better than his own: he blessed Asher with agricultural plenty, perhaps remembering the famine his own family endured; and when he blessed Naftali with the speed of a doe, he might have hoped to spare him the burden of travel, like the slow migration he made from Laban’s home with four wives, 11 children and a lot of livestock.2
And yet, this account of praise, critique, values and aspirations was probably not enough of a legacy for Jacob. He wanted his children not only to know his values, but also to live them out in the world, to carry on the ethical trajectory of his life. Perhaps this is reflected in Jacob’s parting utterance: more command than wish, he instructed all his sons that he desired to be buried not in Egypt, but with his ancestors—“Where Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife, where Isaac was buried, and Rebecca his wife, and where I buried Leah.”3 By asking his sons not to leave him in Egypt, he was forcing them to take action, to stay connected to their ancestors, and ultimately, to leave Egypt and return to the land of Israel.
The rest of the Torah can be viewed as the story of the Children of Israel attempting to fulfill Jacob’s—Israel’s—legacy. As we follow the story, we may ask ourselves the same questions that the Children of Israel face: What legacy was left to us? What are we doing with what we have inherited to move our story forward, to make the world a better place than the one into which we were born?
It is not easy to answer this question, as we have each inherited multiple legacies from the many people who have come before us and inspired us. As children, we must ask: what have we inherited from our ancestors, and how can we move their values forward? And as people who want to actively effect change in the world, we must ask: what work have we inherited from the activists before us, and how are we doing our part to move these causes forward?
A difficult but effective way to answer these questions is to put ourselves in Jacob’s place: what do we want our own legacy to be to those whom we will leave behind? Will each of us be remembered as someone who worked to make the world a better place, who worked to help the vulnerable, who advocated for justice? If not, what might we do differently so that when we get to that point in our lives, we will be able to look back and say, I have lived out the legacy left to me, and I leave behind a legacy of my own?
Legacy is thus as much about looking forward as it is about looking back. Indeed, as this parshah brings us to the end of B’reishit, the first book of the Torah, it is interesting to note that each book ends with a hint about where the Children of Israel are headed. B’reishit, Genesis, ends with the word “Egypt,” as the Children of Israel become the Nation of Israel and begin their extended stay in Egypt. Sh’mot, Exodus, ends with “on all their journeys,” as they depart Egypt for the desert. Vayikra, Leviticus, closes with “at Mount Sinai,” leading us into the Israelites’ travels through the Sinai Desert, chronicled in B’midbar, Numbers. Its closing words are “the Jordan near Jericho,” where the Israelites stay through the final book of the Torah. And D’varim, Deuteronomy, closes the Torah with the word “Israel,” propelling the Jewish people into the Land. With this literary forward momentum, it is as if the Torah is leaving us with its legacy: the command to apply what we have learned as we move forward on our journey.
The last parshah of the whole Torah, V’zot Hab’rachah, references the legacy of Jacob once more, calling the Torah the “legacy of the community of Jacob.”4 As Rashi comments on that phrase: “We have taken hold of it, and we will not forsake it!”5 So too, the legacy of our ancestors and predecessors is not something simply left to us as a memory or keepsake, but rather, it is an impetus to action—to take hold of, to live out and to pass along to those who come after us.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas VaYechi
Big Picture Vision
This weeks Torah reading speaks of Yaakov / Jacob’s final years of life, the seventeen years he spends reunited with his family and the blessings and encouragement he gives them for the future.
The Torah reading begins with the words “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Yaakov’s days, the years of his life, were seven years, and forty, and a hundred year.” (47:28)
In simple terms this means that he lived to the age of one hundred and forty seven.
Yet, peculiarly, the verse says, “seven years, and forty, and a hundred year.”
Also, interestingly, in regards to the seven years it says ‘years’ in the plural and with regards to the hundred years the verse uses the word year in the singular.
‘Years’ in plural are the “details of life” whereas ‘year’ in singular refers to the “general overall picture of life.”
Throughout his life, Yaakov is continually being surprised. It begins with taking the blessings from Esav, needing to suddenly run away, being tricked into marrying the sister of the woman he loves and finally the disappearance of his beloved son, Yosef.
But the end of his life are his best years. His family is united and living in peace, and in these final years, he is able to recognize the patterns of his journey through life. He sees the intent of each step along the way, realizing the bigger picture. It becomes clear to him that all the details of his life were bringing him to this place he was now at.
In life we can have both ‘big picture’ vision and ‘small picture’ vision. Very often we find ourselves stuck in the ‘small picture’ reality. We see only the immediate details of our story – what is currently happening to us, what we are involved with at this moment or our emotional state at this time.
We see the trees and not the forest, as it were.
It is only when looking backwards that we catch a glimpse of the bigger picture.
We live forward but only understand backward. We go from “years” plural to “year” singular.
Oftentimes, we get so bogged down by the small picture vision of life that we forget our big picture vision. Our lives have a trajectory. We have our passion and deep desires to achieve something with our lives, and yet, we often lose ourselves in the minutiae, “this person did this or that to me, i can’t believe this is happening to me now, etc . . . “ It is because of this that we forget the bigger picture, and we veer off course.
The Energy of the Week:Big Picture VisionThe energy coming to us from Vayechi is that of ‘big picture vision’.
This weeks Torah reading gives us the impetus to attain clarity of vision.
Particularly, the ability to step back from the details and recognize the little fragments as integral parts of a whole.
Recognize the minutiae for what it is and don’t get stuck in the smallness of events, emotions and situations, in this way retaining your ability to see the entire picture of life and creation.
Keep sight of your greater goals and purpose being sure not to get bogged down by the details.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
This week’s portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe
Posted: 13 Dec 2010 12:07 PM PST
There’s a custom of blessing our children on Friday nights as we usher in Shabbat. I didn’t grow up with this custom, but I’ve witnessed it many times, and have once or twice had the opportunity to participate in it myself.
The blessing has two parts. Traditionally, girls are blessed that they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; boys are blessed that they be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph who were born to him before his father and brothers moved to Egypt. Then we say the priestly blessing (“May God bless you and keep you…”) to the children regardless of gender.
The blessing for boys, found at Aish.com. The blessing for girls can also be found there.
It’s always baffled me a little bit that we bless our daughters to be like the matriarchs, but we don’t bless our sons to be like the patriarchs. Why are we blessing our sons that they turn out like the two elder sons of Joseph, rather than blessing them to be like Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov themselves?
This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, contains the iconic moment when Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), on his deathbed, blesses Ephraim and Menashe. He places his hands on the boys’ heads (putting his right hand on the younger boy’s head, and his left hand on the older boy’s head, which was apparently a reversal of tradition — Genesis is full of stories of inversion wherein the younger child receives the blessing due to the older one) and he says the following words to Joseph:
The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day —
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm —
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”
It’s an intriguing blessing. For one thing, it’s given to Joseph, not to the boys directly. It invokes Abraham and Isaac twice, and invokes both God and angelic presence. And it suggests that it is through these two grandsons that Jacob’s name will be recalled. The Torah text adds, “So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.'” Clearly this verse is the origin of the custom of blessing our sons in this way. But why do we bless our boys to be like these two, instead of like any of the other fine figures in Torah?
I did a bit of digging, and here’s my favorite among the answers that I found: Ephraim and Menashe were the first two brothers in our ancestral story who didn’t fight. Avraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, were cast by their parents as adversaries (and their rivalry remains, in some ways, at the heart of conflict between Jews and Muslims today.) Jacob and Esau likewise fought; after Jacob tricked Esau out of his blessing, Jacob fled for his life. Though they reconciled eventually, Jacob never trusted his brother’s good will and their relationship remained strained. And Jacob’s sons bitterly resented their youngest brother Joseph, even going so far as to sell him into slavery.
But Ephraim and Menashe do not fight. That’s why we bless our sons to walk in their footsteps. (I’ve seen this interpretation credited to Rabbi Mordechai Elon, a contemporary Israeli rabbi.) I like the idea that we refer to Ephraim and Menashe in this moment of blessing because theirs was the first generation in our ancestral family tree which wasn’t marred by sibling rivalry. The acrimony between the patriarchs and their brothers does ensure that their stories from Torah are approachable and recognizable to us…but is not exactly what I’d hope for my son to emulate in his own life.
The other interpretation which seems fairly popular notes that that Ephraim and Menashe grew up in Egypt. Their mother, Asenath, was Egyptian (as I noted in the Torah poem I wrote for this parsha a few years ago.) In the Biblical imagination, Egypt is the prototypical Diaspora location. But despite their Diaspora childhood and education, Ephraim and Menashe held fast to their minority religious identity, and therefore we bless our sons to be like them in hopes that they too will cling to their Jewishness despite the many pressures of Diaspora life. (This one is variously attributed to R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and to the Eved haMelech, R’ Ovadya Hadia.)
I’d like to recast that second interpretation a little bit. Some retellings of this teaching seem to focus on the importance of clinging to our Jewish heritage despite the siren song of Christian culture. (Some have a tone which I don’t much care for, like this explanation from Chabad rabbi R’ Shmuel Kogan, who writes, “to maintain a high level of spirituality and character amongst a society that is devoid of morals and ethics is the real test.”) But I don’t favor that way of relating to other traditions. I’d rather celebrate the idea that we bless our sons to be like these two Diaspora figures because, as Diaspora Jews, they had the unique opportunity to grow up as my son will grow up: as a citizen of the world, who inevitably encounters people of other traditions and chooses to relate to them with respect.
After blessing these two grandsons, Jacob blesses his twelve sons — many with fairly harsh recriminations. He reminds Joseph to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, back in the land of Canaan (the Cave of the Patriarchs, now in Hebron; I visited it back in 2008.) And then he dies, and Joseph grieves, and he takes his father to be buried in the land of Canaan. While he’s gone, his brothers panic, thinking, ‘what if when he returns he takes revenge on us for our previous misdeeds?’ But Joseph’s response to their concern is quite wonderful. He says, don’t worry; I’m not God, it’s not my job to seek vengeance; and besides, “although you intended me harm, God intended it for good.” Maybe this is why he was able to raise his sons without acrimony toward each other: because he had learned how to let go of his own familial resentments, and how to discern the thread of divine plan in the many ups and downs of his personal story.
What do we need to let go of in order to rear our children without negative family narratives? What blessing can we offer which will convey to them our desires for who we hope they will grow up to be?
Through Adversity to Ultimate Redemption
Every individual must experience rebirth countless times throughout his life in order to reach higher spiritual levels that will catapult him ever closer to Hashem. Just as an individual grows as a result of each problem he confronts, so too does the world. It is this ‘birth process’ which will eventually spawn Moshiach. Thus, Moshiach will be a descendant of Ya’akov’s fourth son, Yehuda. Yehuda represents the wisdom of an expanded mind which comes as a result of neutralizing the spiritual energies of harshness that are generated by adversity. Therefore, no one should ever despair when troubles come, for difficulties are Hashem’s tools for an individual’s, as well as the nation’s growth towards greater intimacy with Him. Therefore, we must unify ourselves to annul all din, using our collective talents to help each other grow closer to Hashem, especially by helping those who are most distant from Him. When this occurs, the prophecy hidden in Ya’akov’s blessings will be realized and Moshiach will come. Amen! [This topic is covered in far more depth in the source material.] (Lekutai Halachot: Choshen Mishpat: Hilchot A’vaida U’ Metziah 3:11, 12)
The Midrash relates that when G-d desired to create man, Truth argued that “he should not be created, for he is full of lies.” Kindness, however, said, “He should be created, for he is full of kindness.”
To this, Truth might have replied: “But that, too, is just another of man’s lies. Yes, man does acts of kindness to his fellows, but not because he is ‘full of kindness’–only because he expects them to be kind to him in return.”
However, there is one act of kindness that proves Truth wrong: the kindness done to the dead. This “kindness and truth,” as the Torah calls it, shows that man is capable of a truly altruistic deed, thereby attesting that all our acts of kindness–even those superficially tainted by selfish motives–are in essence true, deriving from an intrinsic desire to give of ourselves to our fellows.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Carrying Our Bones 2007
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayehi, we encounter Jacob on his deathbed:
Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.”
It’s a striking last request, and his son Joseph makes a similar one at the very end of the portion (and the end of Bereshit): “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” On one level, it’s a very physical thing to ask: don’t bury me here in a foreign land. Take my bones out of here. Settle them in the place I consider home.” On another level, it’s a request with a lot of emotional resonance. What our forefathers may have been asking is something like, “Don’t leave me behind. Don’t forget me here. Carry me with you when you go.”
Jacob’s request is immediately fulfilled. After his body is embalmed for forty days (there’s that number again, symbol of bringing a task to full fruition), Joseph seeks Pharaoh’s permission to carry his father home. Pharaoh grants it, recognizing the importance of the oath Joseph has sworn. With great fanfare and procession Jacob is carried to the Cave of Machpelah, and a week of mourning is observed before Joseph and the entourage return to Egypt.
Joseph’s request, in turn, is designed to be deferred. Perhaps he is aware that under these new circumstances — he is an old man, no longer in power — his sons will not be able to carry him forth promptly, as he had done with the body of his father. Instead he solicits the promise that when God has taken notice of his descendants, they are to take him with them. And that is where the book ends, foreshadowing the exodus but pausing before the narrative can take us to that conclusion.
I see a particular poignancy in Joseph’s request. He knows it may take generations for his wish to be fulfilled. And I think he also knows that if his bones were left behind, that would be tremendously painful for his descendants, a wound that could impact generations to come. In 1993 I visited Prague for the first time, and went with my grandparents to the cemetary where my grandmother’s parents are buried…and realized how difficult it must have been for my grandmother to emigrate, leaving their graves behind. All four of my grandparents had to make that kind of decision, and it can’t have been easy.
Surely Joseph impressed his instruction upon his descendants because he wanted to be brought out of Egypt. But maybe he also impressed it upon them because he didn’t want them to suffer the sadness of being distant from their history. If they had left their ancestors’ bones behind, that would have been just one more excuse for them to bemoan their departure, to wish they had never left. They might have felt impossibly lonely, disconnected not only from the only home they had ever known but also from those they had buried there. Carrying his bones allowed them to feel they were bringing their history — their story — with them on the journey toward unknown freedom.
Of course, the comparison between the Israelites packing up Joseph’s bones, and my grandparents having to leave their ancestors’ bones behind, breaks down under scrutiny. Europe wasn’t Mitzrayim, and America isn’t the Promised Land, at least not in the traditional sense of the term. But the analogy continues to move me; I find an emotional resonance in it which transcends the physical. The Israelites carried their ancestors’ bones with them as a physical sign of the emotional connection that bound them to their history, to where they had come from and who their forebears had been.
For us today, that emotional connection may be what matters, even if exhuming and transporting our ancestors’ bones would never cross our minds. In a world of increased mobility, where we may live too far-away to visit and venerate our ancestors’ burial-places, we have to find other ways of carrying them with us. When I migrated from south Texas to Massachusetts, I brought my grandparents with me: in the abundance of photographs and artifacts that decorate my home, in my grandfather’s tallit and the framed page from my great-grandmother’s cookbook, and most importantly in the memories of who they were and how important we were to one another. Those are the “bones” that matter to me.
I like to think that as I continue to struggle toward liberation — as I enact the recurring process of recognizing the constraints which bind me, and accepting God’s help in moving through them into a place of freedom — I carry my ancestors with me. Each of us can play a small part in fulfilling Joseph’s request: that as we move from slavery to freedom, we bring with us the talismanic reminder of where and who we come from, so that our ancestors are never left behind
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayechi, part 1
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure called a *maqam,
Arabic cognate to Hebrew maqom, Place.
Father Jacob is really living now
even in Egypt he is alive
we want to believe
as he dies
we want to know
life, real life, full life
Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years
and the days of Jacob, the years of his life,
his two lives
were one hundred and forty seven years.
The time approached for Israel to die
so he called for his son, for Joseph. . . [Gen.47:28-29]
His two lives were about over
the life of Jacob
the life of Israel
the man had two lives
the giver the taker —
as he is about to die
I am fishing around in the Torah
for the beginning of the section
because it is closed
closed — no separation between this week’s text
and last week’s text — in the physical Torah.
Go to the poet Rashi
the eyes of Israel (we the people)
were closed because of the passing of dear Jacob
and the crafty Egyptians were rolling the story
Our decline a series of events
– can we enter the story and stop it at any place?
As if you may stop the movement towards catastrophe –
As we can accelerate the movement
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayechi, part 2
D Eb F# G
The Philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037)
Identified 12 principal modes
From “place” (Arabic) Hebrew cognate Maqom.
Ethical and cosmological implications
Signs of zodiac
Times of day and night
Healings and treatments,
Each Torah portion is associated with a musical figure
Something else from Rashi
the portion is closed —
Jacob has something he wants to reveal to his children
but it was closed off to him [see midrash B.Rabbah 96:1]
the end is a revelation
it’s the end of all Exile
the end of time
he wanted to reveal to his children
but they are closed off to him.
There are some elusives, unfinishables
at the end of life
Jacob wants to give them over to his children
but he cannot.
What he does give over is blessings —
poetry, visions spoken in metaphor
but the ultimate redemption —
the end of time
reminds closed off to him.
Jacob needs the assurance
he will be buried with his ancestors
Israel – not the place where his wife is buried
who he describes this way:
she died on me in the land of Canaan on the road [48:7]
died on me?
Something unfinished here too.
Closed off and elusive
visions dreams and songs
at the end of Jacob’s life
the end of Genesis
no ends at all, no beginnings
the illusion of all endings all beginnings
all arrivals all starts
there is only journey and movement and the inevitable rise and fall
no starts and stops at all
it doesn’t begin and it doesn’t end
the great river that flows out of itself
the death of Jacob
the death of Joseph
the end of Genesis
the narratives of the Mothers and Fathers
the beginning of Exile
no sides even
Jacob pulls up his legs and dies
what then –
Aryae and I wrote this blessing for the unveiling of my father in 2006. We wanted to acknowledge the transition of my siblings and me to the new generation of elders in my family. This is now the
time of life for Joseph and his brothers.
Blessing for the New Elders
We bless all of us still in this world who have now taken a step forward. For the parents who are now the grandparents and elders. For the children who are now the parents. May we be blessed to continue to pass along to our children and their children the wisdom and stories of the generations buried here. May we include the wisdom that we have learned in our own time and bring love and generosity to the upcoming generations.
Wendy Berk and Aryae Coopersmith
Reb Shalom Brodt
(From an email sent on January 9, 2009)
The ‘Closed’ Parsha
At the beginning of the parsha Rashi alerts us to its unusual opening. According to our tradition, it was Moshe Rabbeinu who organized the Torah into 53 weekly portions- ‘parshiyot’. Parsha means a portion or a section of Torah. Each weekly parsha is made up of many smaller portions, and each is called a parsha. In the sefer Torah you can distinguish between one parsha and another by the open space between them. The size of this open space varies in length. A “parsha p’tucha” is an open parsha, i.e. there is an open space in between that parsha and the previous one. However our parsha, parshas Va’yechi, is a “parsha stumah” a ‘closed parsha’, i.e. there is no open space between the beginning of our parsha and the end of the previous one. Why is this so?
Rashi brings us two reasons for this: “This is because once our father Yaakov died the eyes and hearts of Israel were ‘closed’ because of the misery of the bondage, for they [the Egyptians then] began to subjugate them. An alternate explanation: Because Yaakov wished to reveal the End to his children and it was concealed [closed] from him” (Bereishis Rabbah).
A Matter Of Perspective
The Ishbitzer Rebbe, in his Mei Hashiloach brings a teaching from the holy Zohar explaining how Yaakov Avinu “lived” during the seventeen years that he was in Mitzrayim, Hashem gave Yaakov a taste of a drop of life ‘m’ein olam ha-bah:’ a taste that is but an approximation of the ‘World to Come’. It is this drop of life, of the life of the World to Come, which sustained Yaakov Avinu in Egypt.
It is told that before the holy Maggid of Mezritch (if I’m not mistaken) passed away, he had promised that he would raise a storm in heaven over the suffering of his people. A while after he had passed away, the holy Chozeh of Lublin finally saw his Rebbe in a dream. The Chozeh asked him why he wasn’t storming the heavens on behalf of his brothers and sisters? The Maggid told him that from where he is now, everything looks good, and therefore he can’t ask Hashem to change anything. Thus we may say that Yaakov Avinu was able to ‘live’ in Mitzrayim because Hashem was giving him a different perspective by giving him a taste of the World to Come, Olam Ha-bah. Yaakov Avinu further transmitted this taste of Olam Ha-bah to his children and grandchildren, until the arrival of Moshiach.
15: Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, “Perhaps Yoseif still bears a grudge against us. He will then certainly repay us for all the evil that we did him.”
16: They sent a command to Yosef saying, “Your father issued a command before his death, saying,
17: ‘This is what you should say to Yosef, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did evil to you. And now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of your father.” Yosef wept as his brothers spoke to him.
18: His brothers also went and threw themselves down before him, and they said, “Behold, we are your slaves.”
19: Yoseif said to them, “Fear not. For am I in place of El-him?
20: You meant to do evil to me, but El-him meant it for good, in order to do as it is today, to preserve the lives of a great people. (Bereishis 50:15-20)
O Shepherd of Israel, hearken, Thou Who leads Joseph like flocks, Thou Who dwells between the cherubim, shine forth.
O God, return us; cause Your countenance to shine and we shall be saved.
Psalm 80: 2,4
In the above verse we see that King David calls all the people of Israel by the name Yosef. Why is this so? Rashi explains:
‘Joseph’: All Israel are called by the name Joseph because he sustained and supported them in time of famine.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l points out that a name is meant to express the inner substance and essence of the person [or object] and not merely an aspect of that person [or object]. Yosef provided nourishment for his family only for the duration of the famine, a relatively short period of time. If so why is all of Israel forever called by his name?
The Rebbe explains that when Yosef sustained his family during the famine he actually did much more than that. By acting with kindness towards those who had acted very inappropriately towards him, Yosef not only taught us “to repay offenders with favors, as taught in the Zohar,10 that we should learn from the example of Joseph’s conduct with his brothers, when he repaid them for the suffering they brought upon him, with kindness and favors,”(Lessons in Tanya, at the end of Chapter 12) he actually bequeathed this extraordinarily good attribute upon his brothers and all of Israel, and taught us how a Jew must behave towards his brothers and sisters-
“to conduct himself toward his fellow with the quality of kindness and to display towards his fellow a disproportionate love, in suffering from him to the furthest extreme, without being provoked into anger, G d forbid, or to take revenge in kind, G d forbid, even without anger; but, on the contrary, to repay offenders with favors, as taught in the Zohar,10 that we should learn from the example of Joseph’s conduct with his brothers.” (Tanya, at the end of Chapter 12)
The Rebbe further explains that the reason we are to behave this way is because one should not judge one’s fellow Jew just on the basis of his external qualities and deeds alone. Instead, he should look deeply into his inner being, to his essential soul which always remains pure.
“And when a Jew relates to a fellow Jew in this manner- this will bring about that within his self, his inner soul-essence will be aroused and revealed. And that is why all of Israel is called by the name Yosef, until the very last of all generations, because it is from Yosef that all of Yisrael received the energy and capability to “to repay offenders with favors.” “(Likkutei Sichos 5 p. 239)
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys
(And He Lived)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Jacob, on his deathbed, gives a blessing to each of his sons.
“JACOB LIVED,” the portion begins, and the story reveals a deathbed scene where instead of saying that “Jacob died,” it says he was “gathered into his people” 1…into us. The blessing that I receive from Vayechi is the knowledge that Jacob still lives within me.
After wrestling with an angel on the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob received a new name. That moment represented a spiritual transformation. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed,” said the angel.2
Yet, until the very end of the narrative of Genesis, Jacob is called by both names. Even at the moment of death he is referred to as “Jacob”. Jacob’s story tells us something quite profound about the nature of spiritual transformation. And it helps us relate more realistically to our own process of transformation.
LOOKING AT YOUR OWN JACOB, you might find certain qualities that seem to be wired into your personality. You might be a worrier or you might be impatient, argumentative, controlling or manipulative. When you begin to have experiences of expanded consciousness, you are given the name “Israel” and you take on a spiritual practice that proceeds from that new identity. But “Jacob” never really goes away. Through our practice we learn how to manage that worrier, that impatient one, that manipulator. We can learn to have compassion for the fearful source of that voice. After many years of committed practice I realize that the voices of Jacob-within-us may never be entirely silenced, but as the Israel-in-us grows, those Jacob voices lose their power to compel and we are no longer tricked or trapped by their arguments.
When I receive the blessing of the knowledge of where Jacob lives within me, then I can recognize his voice and gently refuse his advice, looking instead to Israel, for wisdom, passion and courage for my journey.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
The Spiritual Challenge
VAYECHI gives us an extraordinary scene of Jacob on his deathbed initiating each of his sons on their path, naming the particular medicine that they will carry. Depending on how that medicine is used, it can be either a blessing or a curse. To carry a particular medicine into the world always means navigating a spiritual challenge, for the power of your medicine can heal or destroy.
Each of Jacob’s sons are gifted with a totem – an image, quality or animal that can be their teacher in the spirit realms. We carry within us all the medicine of our ancestors
the Unstable water of Reuben,
the Lion of Judah,
the Harbor of Zebulon,
the Strong-boned ass of Issachar,
the Snake of Dan,
the Warrior of Gad,
the Prosperity of Asher,
the Deer of Naftali,
the Wild Ass of Joseph
and the Hungry Wolf of Benjamin.
EACH IMAGE is a pathway through which power can move through us into the world. The spiritual challenge is to call on that power as we become healers, to use that power with awareness, and dedicate it to holiness – to the good of all.
1 Genesis 49:33
2 Genesis 32:29
To read Guideline For Practice please click on the link to the website:
I am struck with the part of the story (49:1) where “Yaakov called for his sons and said, ‘Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of days.’” Then he doesn’t tell them! Rashi says that at that moment, the Shechinah left him, so his window into the future closed. Why did the Shechinah leave him?
With Yaakov’s death comes the end of the three generations of our fathers and mothers, setting the stage for the next chapter of our story, slavery in Egypt. The rabbis interpret “end of days” to mean the end of our time of exile. There are four periods of exile: slavery in Egypt was the first, and our current time, before the coming of Moshiach, is the last and longest.
Our job in exile is to gather the sparks we find here and raise them up. The window had to close for Yaakov because if he had revealed it all then, and we knew the end, the story we’re living today couldn’t exist, and the sparks that we’ve been sent here to redeem would remain unredeemed. The Zohar alludes to this when it says:
“And I will tell you.” What is the meaning of “tell” (agidah)? The secret wisdom… All that could be said, Yaakov said. The secret is hidden inside. (Zohar, Bereishit, Section 1, p. 234B)
Reb Shlomo used to say: “What’s the deepest kind of friendship? It’s when we can tell each other our secrets.” Maybe the secret of the end of days can’t be communicated in words. Maybe we only get to find it inside the story of exile. Maybe we only get to hear it when God is our closest friend. Maybe we only get to share it when we discover a friend who is on the journey with us.
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