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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Stop Moving! a (Belated) Commentary on Parshat Vayekhi

Between general vacation time with my children and the celebration of the secular new year I did not get a chance to send out a commentary this week. but, better late than never!
Happy New Year! May it be a year filled with joy, gratitude and learning!

Stop Moving! A Commentary on Parshat Vayekhi


This week’s parashah, Vayekhi (Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 49:33), brings to a

close the book of Bereshit/Genesis. Jacob is finally able to settle down and rest in
Egypt with his sons and their families. Until now he has not been able to stop moving either physically or emotional.

This began when he traded Esau a bowl of lentils for his birthright and then manipulated his father (with the help of his mother) into giving him Esau’s
blessing. And so he ran from his brother’s anger and vengeance and went to the land from which his parents came. There he worked for 14 years in order to finally marry Rachel and Leah (the latter due to at trick played on him by her father).

Then, somewhat covertly, he moved his family away from his father-in-law Laban’s home in order to set out on his own. But still he never found rest. For next he had to respond to his daughter Dinah’s rape (which he did not really respond to effectively – but that is for another time), the fall out of his sons’ murderous vengeance on the people of Shechem (whose prince had raped Dinah) and beyond. He was always moving. Even once settled he was never truly able to rest. Once he seemed to settle down Esau returned on the scene and once again, he feared for his life. In short, he was constantly moving or needing to respond to crisis after crisis – whether real or perceived.

Once he believed Joseph to be dead, one might think that he would have
settled down simply out of grief. Yet, the Torah makes it clear that he never stopped mourning for Joseph or for his beloved wife Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin. This kind of constant, unrelenting grief itself takes a great deal of energy, and so even if he were sedentary in a physical sense, emotionally he was still unable to settle down and simple enjoy life.

With the discovery that Joseph was alive, he was again on the move, as he
went down to Egypt in order to see his son. Perhaps it was the ability to
rest after being reunited with Joseph that finally allowed him to let go and
find some respite – and that prepared him to die.

Even though the days of peace and tranquility in Jacob’s life were few and
fleeting, it is significant that the name of this parashah – Vayechi – means
“and he lived.” As always, the name is simply taken from the first verse of
the parashah, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years…” Not
coincidentally, Jacob lived the same number of years in Egypt as Joseph had
lived with him before being sold by his brothers into slavery. As stated by
the medieval commentator, R. David Kimchi “Just as Joseph was in the lap of
Jacob for 17 years, Jacob was in the lap of Joseph 17 years.”

It is true that Joseph was able to care for his father the same number of
years that his father had cared for him. However, I believe the
significance goes beyond this. For it is possible to (interpretively)
translate the opening verse to read “And Jacob was finally able to live during the 17 years that he spent in Egypt.” Finally, Jacob was able to let go of his need to control others, or run from them. He was able to live without his mind being constantly torn apart with grief over Joseph and Rachel. For even though Rachel was dead, knowing that her two sons were alive and with him allowed him to let go of the crippling grief that prevents one from being able to truly live.

After 17 years of living, watching, and enjoying life, it was as if the scales had been rebalanced. The 17 years that he spent doting on Joseph – which helped to create his brothers’ hatred for him – had now been balanced with 17 years of peace and tranquility living together with the sons of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Jacob can finally die, now that he has finally allowed himself just to live.

Then, as he prepares to die something happens. It is as if he realizes, after 17 years of simply living, that this is his last opportunity to act. And so he sets about to bless Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. In reading the passage that describes the blessing of Ephraim and Menasseh, the use of Jacob’s two names caught my attention.

The verses read, “And someone told Jacob and said, ‘Look, your son Joseph [with his two sons] is coming to you.’ And Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” Then Jacob recounts to Joseph when God first appeared to him and blessed him, and then tells him that he is about to bless the two boys. We then read, “And Israel saw Joseph’s sons … and Israel’s eyes had grown heavy with age … and he kissed them (Ephraim and Menasseh) … and Israel said to Joseph ‘I had not thought to see your face, and, look God has also let me see your seed.’ ” It is then that Israel blesses the two boys.

Though the Torah often uses the two names of Jacob/Israel interchangeably without any obvious reason, I became aware of a clear message in these particular verses. For though it is Jacob, whom Joseph first encounters and who recounts his first meeting with God (when he was only known as Jacob) it is Israel who summons his strength, sits up and then takes over. It is Israel, meaning the one who struggled with beings both Divine and human and that prepares to bless his grandchildren. Jacob may be the one who is willing and able to let go of his history of running, hiding, and manipulating, but somewhere inside him there is still a part that not only wants to act one last time, but who realizes that it is necessary. Therefore, even though Israel’s “eyes had grown heavy with age,” and perhaps with disuse, they were still able to see what needed to be done at that moment. It is Israel who acknowledges the miracle of being reunited with Joseph and then blesses the boys.

Of course, it is also Israel who intentionally gives the younger, Ephraim, the blessing that belongs to his elder brother, Menasseh, by crossing his hands when blessing them. When Joseph points this out to his father, he makes it clear that he knows what he is doing. The younger will continue to serve the elder, just as has happened all along. Israel, who struggled with God, has the strength and the clarity to see that this is God’s will and to insure that it happens. It is not birth order that determines who is blessed, nor has it ever been. It is God’s will, and God’s will alone, which determines this. At this moment, it becomes clear that the trickery that assured Jacob the blessing that was thought to have belonged to Esau, was as much a part of God’s plan as is this exchange of Menasseh and Ephraim ’s blessings. Joseph was not the only one who realized that he was simply an instrument of God’s will, as he told his brothers in last week’s parashah and which he will reiterate this week.

In analyzing the use of the names Yisrael/Israel and Yaakov/Jacob in this parashah, the message is simple. First, we learn that it is those who struggle in this world that are able to eventually discern most clearly God’s will. Those who wrestle and struggle are able to become aware of what God wants of us. However, it is important to remember that the struggle is not in order to achieve control or mastery of the world, but merely to understand what it is that is expected of us. This is what it means to be Israel/Yisrael.


As the people of Israel, we must continue this struggle as we attempt to become conscious of what it means to be created in the image of God and to be partners with God in the ongoing work of creation. However, we must also remember that Israel was not able to reemerge until after Jacob was able to live. So too, we must take the time to simply experience and pay attention to life. This is what provides us with the strength and conviction to then become God wrestlers so that we can change the world not in order to meet our own needs or desires, but to bring the world closer to the imagined Divine ideal.

This does not mean that we are simply pawns in a Divine chess game. However, it does mean that there is a Divine plan of which we are all a part. Yet, we need to let go of our desire to control life and the world around us in order to discern where we fit in to the plan and how we are to act. This requires effort and struggle, but also it requires letting go of our need to understand every detail and be in control of every occurrence.

As human beings, this is not always easy to do. As descendants and recipients of the blessing of Israel, it is what we must do. That is the struggle. That is the challenge. That is life.

Shabbat Shalom. (or, in this case, Happy New Year and Shavuah Tov - a Good Week!)

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