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Parashat Vayechi 5778 — 12/30/2017

Parashat Vayechi 5778 — 12/30/2017

Bereishit 47:28-50:26

The end of our parashah, which brings the first book of the Chumash to a close, contains the odd story of Yosef’s brothers’ attempts to save their skins from a revenge they thought would surely be coming after Ya’akov’s death.

Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, ‘Perhaps Yosef will nurse a hatred against us, and then he will surely repay us all the evil that we did to him.’ (50:15)

The brothers then send an emissary to Yosef to tell him that their father, before he died, instructed that Yosef forgive his brothers. The commentators strive to find where, in Scripture, Ya’akov said anything of the sort. He did tell all the brothers to gather together, which could be construed as meaning “as a unified group” with no baggage hanging on. It’s also possible that Ya’akov had so instructed and Torah simply didn’t record it – Torah is not a transcript of Ya’akov’s life. It is also possible that the brothers made up the story out of whole cloth, and this seems to be Abarbanel’s approach.

Incidentally, some commentators have noted that the brothers never actually ask forgiveness from Yosef directly (they do so only indirectly via the messenger, and by putting the words in their father’s mouth). And Yosef “speaks to their hearts,” but never actually forgives them. The closest he comes is to tell them that although they intended him ill, Gd turned it around for good. “No harm, no foul.” Except maybe for the 12 years he spent in an Egyptian dungeon.

Abarbanel first of all takes our verse and translates it literally as: It should be that Yosef will nurse a hatred against us, and it should be that he surely will repay us all the evil that we did him. [My italics] Why would the brothers want Yosef to harbor hatred against them? He explains:

… we [the brothers] would prefer that he [Yosef] express his feelings toward us openly rather than keeping them locked up inside. We would also prefer that he repay us with evil – since the result of the evil that we did to him was his elevation to greatness, whatever evil he does to us will be to our benefit as well.

The first part of this statement actually reflects on the brothers’ own behavior. Back in parashat Vayeshev, when Yosef arouses the brothers’ jealousy, “they could not speak to him peaceably,” (37:4) The Rabbis actually praise the brothers for this, pointing out that they did not dissemble and pretend to like Yosef – they let their feelings be expressed right on the surface. This is something the Rabbis tell us we must all strive for. In Aramaic it’s expressed succinctly: tocho k’varo – his inside is like his outside (the original reference was to the Ark of the Covenant, which was gold covered inside and out). Our inner reality should be reflected in our outer behavior; the underlying assumption being that if our awareness is in tune with Gd’s Will, our actions should be also. This positive situation is automatic. It is the opposite situation that can become problematic. If we have negative feelings about someone, we shouldn’t be feigning amity while looking for an opportunity to stab the person in the back. However, it is also true that if we force ourselves to behave properly on the outside, that eventually has a salutary effect on our mental state and eventually will bring our awareness into accord with Gd’s Will. This is the basis of our whole program of mitzvah observance as a tool for spiritual development.

I find the second part of Abarbanel’s statement more problematic. Why does it necessarily follow from the fact that the evil the brothers perpetrated on Yosef turned to good, that any evil that Yosef would do to the brothers would also turn to good? Abarbanel adduces the principle of “measure for measure” – Gd treats us the way we treat others – to explain this symmetry, but I don’t find that logic compelling. It would seem that once the brothers had started the process by selling Yosef to Egypt, Gd went to Plan B, using the “opportunity” to get Ya’akov and his family to Egypt. But that was Gd’s doing, not the brothers’! Their intent was not benign or constructive at all! When Yosef says that “Gd intended it for good,” he, as the victim, has the right to say this and to forgive his brothers on that basis. But the brothers have no right to say, “Well look, it turned out for the best, so we’re off scot-free!” Clearly, the brothers recognized this fact, or they wouldn’t have begged Yosef for mercy, they would have demanded justice. (I want to remind the reader that the edition of Abarbanel that I am using is a translation and selection from the larger corpus of Abarbanel’s writings. It may be that in the original Hebrew and in the original context, Abarbanel clarifies and explains these issues more fully.) The only way I can see that the brothers could argue that “whatever evil he does to us will be to our benefit as well” would be that the evil done to them might atone for the evil that they did to him.

Our actions certainly have reactions, and the quality of the reaction certainly depends on the quality of the action and the quality of the thoughts behind that action. But we are skating on very thin ice indeed when we think that we can apply simplistic explanations to complex, real-life situations. How many times have we heard things like “<insert natural disaster> occurred because society condones <insert behavior that the speaker doesn’t like>” from so-called pundits? This has been going on since Job, and it’s no more useful nor acceptable now than it was then, when Gd reproved Job’s three “friends” for their chutzpah. By focusing on reward and punishment when it comes to other people we descend to a crude victim blaming. By focusing on reward and punishment for ourselves, we have a chance of introspecting and changing our ways. We would all be a lot better off if we just focused on self-improvement, using all the tools and techniques that our tradition gives us.

Chazak! Chazak! and Nitchazek!

A glorious New Year to all, and may 2018 bring us all the blessings of heaven and earth!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayechi

In this parshah, as Jacob prepares to die, he gathers his sons and tells them he will tell them what will happen to them at the End of Days. Jacob doesn’t describe the End of Days but the general belief of Judaism is that this is the time of the coming of Mashiach, the Messiah, who will, by example, lead Israel (to me, everyone) into a world in which there is only good and kindness, no suffering.

Yet, also our literature describes the chaotic situation which will exist prior to the coming of Mashiach—much chaos but also much good, much wisdom rising.

Such goodness as that of the “End of Days” to me occurs because the limits of time end as the experience rises of Oneness with the Timeless, the One, the Only.

Jacob begins his telling with a description of each of his twelve sons (why his daughter Dinah was left out is a mystery I invite everyone to explore with me but do not look into here).

His first three sons – Reuben, Simon and Levi – he describes as wrathful, to be separated from the rest of his sons. This is like the chaos that precedes the coming of Mashiach.

Then with Judah, he describes his kindness that will rule until Mashiach who will rule and gather all people together.

It is only when everyone is experiencing the Timeless, the One, of which time and days are expressions, that good can be the reality of life and suffering can be absent and each day, each moment, is naturally lived with the Full Joy of the Time. This is the time when Mashiach feels welcome in our world and can rule with natural kindness.

Jacob, his sons, Mashiach, the End of Days, and Oneness are not only persons of historic time but also processes that occur within our own awareness, our own physiologies.

Each day, through non-straining, and each day through kindness, through “loving our neighbor as our self” we grow to know our self more fully and grow to become more capable of “loving Gd with all our heart and soul.”

In this way, each day, each moment, we become more capable of experiencing Mashiach and Timelessness, Oneness, within ourselves and transforming our world into a Temple in which Mashiach will feel welcome and rule so that all will be good, love, joy – Good, Love, Joy.

Baruch HaShem