Divrei Torah

Parshat Vayechi –> Shemot (Dead and Alive)

BS”D

Vayechi –> Shemot

(This sedra ending the book of Bereishit was the parsha of my father’s Z”L birth on Shabbat.)

Parshat Vayechi speaks about the last seventeen years of Yaakov Avinu. He dies in Mitzrayim yet demands to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, in the Machpelah. A great ceremony is created in the Holy Land. None of his children are inspired to be buried in Eretz HaKodesh; only his kingly son, Yosef HaTzaddik, is brought back with Bnei Yisrael and re-interred when they return and reconquer G-d’s land.

As for Yaakov, one wonders why in our Amidah we invoke “Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, veElokei Yaakov.” Wouldn’t it be correct to say “Elokei Yisrael”? We call out Avraham Avinu’s changed name. Why not Yaakov’s? We speculate the reading’s emphasis is upon the “ve”: veYaakov. Yitzchak’s name remained throughout his life and he could bless both his sons for their best definition. Whereas “ve’Yaakov” carries both names: immediately after G-d blesses Yisrael with his new name, the Torah reverts to referring to him as Yaakov. The interchangeability is demonstrated in this sedra, 48:2-3: “When it was told to Yaakov, ‘Behold, your son Yosef has come to you,’ Yisrael collected his strength and sat up in the bed. Then Yaakov said to Yosef…” The word “ve” carries this duality, so when affixed to Yaakov — veYaakov — it contains the lot of his dual nature, as evidenced in his progeny. Yaakov returns to both Rachel and Leah, and when he was Yisrael stands before G-d on High.

Through his G-d-given name, Yisrael struggles to rise to a lofty relationship with the divine in life, the divine in himself. As Yaakov, he struggles in his interaction with his fellow man, ever-continuing his prenatal grapple with his twin. He was named “heel” (3:14-15) but it wasn’t his heel at all; it was Esav’s heels that he held onto, embodying in a way the primordial snake of Eden. Like a shadowbox, Yaakov wrestled with the snake that was cursed to sidewind through the mud and to bite and nip at the heels of Eve. The name Yaakov means that Esav is always in the grasping hands of his younger brother.

Like Yaakov and Yisrael, every human being both belongs and unbelongs. When we choose to belong to the hoi polloi, we unbelong to our message of spiritual destiny. When we attend to the petty squabble about us, we lose the princely purpose of our being. Are they invariably exclusive? No. There is an idea in Judaism of a “Jerusalem on High,” apart from the earthly Jerusalem. We, Bnei Yisrael, have the continuing task of bringing the Heavenly Yerushalayim down upon the earthly one. The religious injunction of observing the commandments gives evidence of invoking G-d to enter our world. Synagogues were not meant to be enormous caverns that dwarf the worshipper. Jewish prayer is to bring G-d among us, not for us to leave here for the effervescence of the celestial plane.

My precious father’s last physical contact with me was pressing my cheek and giving me the blessing found in this Torah portion: “Yesimcha Elokim k’Ephraim v’ch’Menashe.” Father’s handprint is still in precious imprint. I ever return to it. Live with it. Walk in it. But this blessing was given directly to Ephraim and to Menashe. It states to them: “May you be blessed like Ephraim and like Menashe.” What was it that Yaakov Avinu said to them? How can you direct your grandchildren to grow into themselves? There seems to be no movement. I understand that every Jewish male receives this blessing from his father: be like Ephraim, like Menashe. But the original two can only be themselves. They were both named by Yosef. Ephraim means “the choicest fruit,” the produce of my life. And Menashe was named “forgetting the past” of the harshness and odium that Yosef HaTzaddik endured at the hands of his siblings. They still have more to live out in fuller dimension through their names.

On reading the pasuk in the Torah — “Becha Yavarech Yisrael Lemor” (Bereishit 48:20) — the Torah states that Yaakov blessed these grandchildren with that bracha. It’s written in the singular second-person: “becha, in you” and not “bachem, in them.” Rashi tells us that this means that every Jewish son should be blessed with this blessing. The grandchildren were blessed at once by Yaakov but experienced the blessing each: may you together have the profundity of relation, of the quality of two within your one.

Let us visit Bereishit 48:14: “But Yisrael put out his right hand and laid it on the head of the younger one, Ephraim, and put his left hand on the head of Menashe — he intentionally crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn.” And let us posit for the sake of this writing that the names Menashe and Ephraim hold a curious parallel to the names Yaakov and Yisrael. After all, who names their child “let me forget the past?” And why name an infant for the awkward and wayward pathways of a heel? Yaakov, the cheated second-born, seems to be purposefully unaccepting of Yosef’s children’s birth order. How fascinating and foretelling that within the name Menashe we have the name Moshe, but ensconced within Moshe are the first and last letters of the word nakhash. Remember ahead that the children of Moshe were named Gershon and Eliezer. Gershon is given the negative name “I was a stranger there” and Eliezer takes the positive nomenclature “G-d is my help.” We also see in Gershon the outside letters of the word nakhash, the same two we find in Menashe.

These names foretell the Biblical experience of identity-making in process. In the book Shemot we begin in slavery and are seen through to redemption. After freedom, the nation receives its blessing at Mount Sinai. G-d calls us a “Kingdom of Priests” and a holy nation. This is the direction of biography in the Pentateuch and the underlying motion of the Exodus story, from dark to light, from slavery to essence. We travel through denigration. We travel to blessing. Avraham did, Yitzchak did, Yaakov did, the nation did. Thwarted at first but in motion to a more exalted self-actualization.

Can there be a shade of common memory in the personal lives of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Yosef in their struggle and triumph? Avram in a pagan’s world workshop, carving idols, propagating them as a dutiful son of Terach. Then Avraham and Sarah become the sublime primary teachers, with a message of the sole Creator, guardian of Heaven on Earth. It’s legendary that Adam and Eve hide in a bush and G-d ferrets them out through the burning bush. One in the lush garden of paradise, the other in the cloudless sands of the desert. Menashe is the struggling in_completion of the past, and Ephraim is the overcoming lofty elation in the supernal plans of the Almighty. They both throb continually. Still within our elation we remember the invariable losses, the concretia of barrenness and desolation.

Dead and alive: This is the parsha in which Yaakov dies in Egypt. And yet its name — Vayechi — means “and he lives.” Moshe will be targeted to die in Parshat Shemot, but his life will leave an eternal impact through G-d’s revelatory manumission. When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he pronounces: “Is my father alive?” I propose that he intends to say: “Is the G-d of my father alive?” Is it Yaakov’s G-d or is it Yisrael’s G-d? Is Yisrael’s G-d alive in our family, alive in you? G-d is with the humble. Knowledge of G-d is discovery anew every day. It is the only life to live once lived. Tzaddikim live on through the G-d of our Fathers, when the names of our Fathers are invoked within us: “Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, veElokei Yaakov.”

Living in bliss necessitates the sharing of blessedness. Blessing is more than pronouncing platitude. This should be incorporated in cautious introspection when we bless our children. The one who can truly bless is the one who is replete with the overwhelming sense of being blessed himself. Shabbat shalom.

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