One of my great teachers was Reuven Hammer, z”l, from whom I received my rabbinical ordination. He was a prolific writer and a pioneering Jewish leader in both the US and in Israel.
The following words of Torah about this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, were shared by Rabbi Hammer and published in the book, To Be Continued. I hope his words (edited for brevity) will resonate with you, as they do with me, as we bid good riddance to the violent year 2023 and look forward to what will hopefully be a year of recovery, health, justice, good, and SHALOM in 2021.
The Torah portion Vayehi – “And he lived” – is all about death and dying, just as the portion Hayei Sarah – “The Life of Sarah” – was all about Sarah’s death and burial. There is something so off-putting about death that the Torah chooses to title these sections concerning death as if they dealt with life. Death is tragic in that it robs those remaining alive of the presence of the one who has died. Yet the life of that person was more important and can never be erased. Their life, not their death, is what remains and what we honor.
Vayehi begins and ends with death. It tells of Jacob’s preparations for dying, his death and burial in Canaan, and quickly moves to the death of Joseph many years later and to his temporary entombment in Egypt. This is appropriate since no country was ever as preoccupied with death as was ancient Egypt. Its religious beliefs were consumed with death, mummification, and preparing for another, eternal, life. Judaism has other concerns and places its emphasis on this world, on this life.
The differences between the funerals of Jacob and Joseph tell the story of the decline of freedom for the Israelites in Egypt. For Joseph there is no great procession out of Egypt, no days of mourning. He lies embalmed in a coffin in Egypt, awaiting the day when the children of Israel will be able to leave and to take his body with them, as indeed they did hundreds of years later. In the meantime, they are all ensnared in Egypt.
Much space is given to Jacob’s last words to his children. The Sages connect this story of Jacob’s deathbed blessing/castigating his children with, of all prayers, the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4). How so?
They taught that after Jacob – who has also earned the name “Israel” – had reproved each of his sons individually, he called them all together and asked them a question that reflected his life-long concern: Whether his children will all prove worthy of serving as the namesakes of the Twelve Tribes, as progenitors of the Jewish people. His question was, “Do you have any doubts in your hearts about The-One-Who-Spoke-and-the-World-Came-Into-Being?”
They replied all together as one: “Hear, O Israel, our father [Sh’ma Yisrael], just as there are no doubts in your heart about The-One-Who-Spoke-and-the-World-Came-Into-Being, so there are no doubts in our hearts about The-One-Who-Spoke-and-the-World-Came-Into-Being. Rather, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One! [Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad]” Therefore Jacob gave thanks and praise that no unworthy children had come from him and said, “Blessed is the Name of God’s glorious Majesty for ever and ever [Baruch shem kivod malchuto l’olam va’ed].” (Sifre Deuteronomy 49).
The Jacob depicted in the Midrash is not the embittered man that we see in the Torah itself, taking the opportunity to tell his children what he really thinks of them. Rather, he is the concerned father, bringing up a family, seeing what they do while worrying about their character, praying only that they will hold fast to the values and beliefs that he himself cherishes. When he is convinced and assured that they have not abandoned his most important beliefs, he can die content.
This is a Jacob with whom we can all identify. As parents we watch with anxiety as our children mature. We have values and beliefs that we want to convey to them, and we wonder if we have succeeded. We feel that in the end, we have little control over them and can only hope that what we have tried to teach by example will have had some effect. How happy we are when we see the fruits of this coming true! When that happens, we, like Jacob, can give thanks and praise, blessing “the Name of God’s glorious Majesty for ever and ever.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz