Vayechi 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
In parshat Vayehi, (the final chapters of Genesis), the story of the “First Family” of the Jewish people comes to an end, and the scene is set for the Book of Exodus. Yaakov and all his descendants are reunited in Egypt under Yosef’s protection as the “Prime Minister” of Egypt. Yaakov senses that his time to “be gathered to his people” has arrived, so he blesses Yosef’s two children as his own, and in the plot twist so thematic of Genesis, he reverses his hands, blessing the older son with the hand appropriate for the younger. This time, however, there is no acrimony. Yaakov calls all his sons to his deathbed and blesses them each individually. Yaakov dies, and is taken by Yosef and the family to be buried in the Land of Israel. The brothers fear for their lives now that their father is dead (thinking Yosef may now take revenge), but Yosef forgives them for selling him into slavery, reminding them that God has brought them to Egypt for a reason. Yosef dies, and asks to be taken up to Israel when the Israelite nation eventually goes back to its home.

IN FOCUS
“After all these things, it was told to Yosef: ‘Your father is sick now.’ So he took his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, with him. ”
(Genesis 48:1)


PSHAT

Yaakov has lived for 17 years in Egypt, and the text says he is more than a hundred years old. He becomes sick, and calls for his children to come to him, so that he may bless them and instruct them before he dies.

DRASH
There is a tradition that dates back to the Talmud that there was no sickness in the world before Yaakov became sick. A contemporary anthology of midrashim* re-tells the story of Yaakov’s illness:

    From the day the heavens and earth were created, a person was never ill before they died. When a person’s time came, he or she would spread out [on the bed] and their soul would depart. But Yaakov said to the Holy Blessed One: “Master of the Universe! It isn’t good that a person doesn’t feel anything before their death. People aren’t careful to write a will and to speak their final words to their children and family. Thus, I pray of You, let people become ill and feel that their days are numbered, so that they will be quick to speak with their families and to give over to them their final wishes.” 

    The Holy Blessed One replied to Yaakov: “Your request is a worthy one, and I will begin with you.” Thus our father Yaakov was the first one to fall ill.

This midrash presents us with a couple of problems. First, I don’t know if the rabbis of the Talmud really believed that there was no sickness in the world before Yaakov- after all, they themselves tell midrashim about the plagues that God visited on the kings who took Sara and then Rivka into their households. Secondly, even if we take that part of the story at face value, why didn’t Yaakov make a different prayer, and spare the world enormous suffering? Couldn’t he have prayed that people have a greater consciousness of their mortality without all the terrible pain that our bodies can go through? After all, if God can create illness, then God could have created something else for the same purpose!

There are other people who become sick in the Bible, but what makes the story of Yaakov’s final days so extraordinary is the care he took to speak his final words to his family. Both chapters 48 and 49 are entirely devoted to Yaakov’s blessings of his children and grandchildren- sometimes promising them great things, and sometimes speaking harsher words that address deep truths. In these chapters, death is not portrayed as tragic; rather, it seems to be a fulfillment, a time for reconciliation and transmitting final teachings.

We might even go so far as to say that Yaakov’s death is a model of the ideal death- surrounded by family, all the loose ends tied up, in one’s own bed, no business unfinished. Yet the paradox that our midrash suggests is that people usually don’t or won’t reconcile themselves with their loved ones without the impetus of “knowing that one’s days are numbered.” Perhaps our midrash is picking up on the unusual completeness of Yaakov’s final days- not only did he bless and instruct his sons, but he even gave instructions for his own burial. Would he have done that, at least in such detail, if he hadn’t taken sick?

We must acknowledge that some deaths are tragic, and some illnesses extremely painful and debilitating. However, despite the real pain, both physical and emotional, that can be part of our lives, to me our midrash suggests that there is still a blessing to be found in the fearful fact of our mortality: knowing our days are numbered should spur us to acts of reconciliation and communication that we might otherwise just keep putting off. For example, we might compare this idea to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holidays, which reminds us that nobody knows what the future holds- for each of us, the coming year might bring life or death, health or illness, prosperity or problems.

The point isn’t to put us into a state of anxiety and despair, but rather to get us thinking about “repentance, prayer and righteous acts.” To me, anxiety about my life comes from feeling that I’ve avoided certain tasks that I need to be working on, things like cleaning up any relationships that have problems or devoting enough time to my religious life. To paraphrase a famous Hasidic story, when I’m asked about my deeds in this life, I’m not going to be held to an impossible standard, merely asked why I wasn’t more like the Neal I could have been.

The Psalmist expresses this in a poignant verse: “Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Wisdom, it seems to me, is not only the acceptance of the fact that our lives on this earth are time-bound, but acting on that knowledge, living life more intensely, more spiritually, more focussed on the things that matter, letting go of the things that don’t, making sure we’ve done our best to teach friends and family what we want them to know.

Yaakov became Yisrael, and his name became the name by which the Jewish people are known. Contemporary Judaism is inconceivable without his legacy of “God-wrestling” and spiritual seeking. Yet our ancestor Yaakov’s greatest gift to us may be the example he set at the end of his life of seeking, when he called his family near and gave over to them the Torah of his soul. Returning to the teaching that “no one was sick in the world before Yaakov became sick,” we can now read it differently: no one before Yaakov understood on a spiritual level the real implications of mortality, and no one took the great care that he did to leave this world with dignity, love, and completeness as a parent and teacher.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”


* Source: Otzar Aggadot HaTorah, a retelling and expansion of older midrashim, compiled by R. Yisrael Yaakov Klapholtz. He cites the Talmud, Midrash Rabbah, and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer as sources for this tradition. The collection is Hebrew; the translation is mine.

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