Skip to content

Parashat VaYechi 5780 — 01/11/2020

Parashat VaYechi 5780 — 01/11/2020

Bereishit 47:28-50:26

Parashat Vayechi is the shortest (by 20 verses) parashah in the Book of Genesis, but it’s the most dense, and requires the most unpacking. The central part of the parashah is Ya’akov’s blessings to his sons. These are more like Oracles, and must be interpreted, which the commentaries all do, from all different angles and with sometimes radically different approaches. Here is Or haChaim’s commentary on the blessing of Yissachar (abridged).

First, some background information. After Leah had had four sons, and the two handmaids had had two each, Rachel was still barren. One day, Leah’s eldest son, Reuven, brought home some duda’im (usually translated mandrakes), which were held to enhance fertility. Rachel asks Leah if she might have them, as Ya’akov was to sleep with her that night. Leah agrees, on condition that she get the night with Ya’akov. Rachel agrees, Leah “goes out” to meet Ya’akov as he’s coming home from shepherding (Leah having heard his donkey braying), and the result is Yissachar, from the root meaning “to hire.” Both women are criticized for the transaction, even though each was acting “for the sake of heaven.” Rachel was criticized for giving up the opportunity to have time with the righteous Ya’akov. The result, according to Rabbinic tradition, was that she was not buried with him in the Cave of Machpelah with Avraham and Sarah and with Yitzchak and Rivka.

More relevant to Yissachar’s blessing, is that Leah is criticized for “going out” to meet Ya’akov. Throughout Jewish tradition, women represent, and are supposed to exemplify, the inner, transcendental value of life. It is not considered the place for the transcendent to “go out” into the world of change and relativity; rather it is our job to raise the world of change and relativity to a state of perfection, in which its transcendental basis is obvious even on the surface. Now, here is what Or haChaim has to say about Yissachar:

Yissachar is a hard-boned donkey; he rests between the boundaries. He saw contentment that it was good, and the land that it was pleasing, so he bent his shoulder to bear and he became a tribute as a servant (49:14-15).
[The Hebrew chamor garem / “hard-boned donkey” is translated as “caused by a donkey,” taking garem from the Aramaic word “to cause.”] The fact that his mother “went out” as a result of the braying of the donkey is the reason behind the fact that Yissachar “rests between the boundaries,” i.e. is not permanently settled in its place. And this is why Torah scholars, who are offshoots of Yissachar, are moving about from city to city [to study Torah]. For an improper act produces similar results, and [by “going out”] Leah had done something that appeared to be a violation of proper behavior. …
The explanation [of the second verse] is that lofty [spiritual] contentment is good. If a person observes and contemplates any of the sensory delights of this world, such as food and drink, the pleasure from the object is not really from the object itself, rather it is from the body, which is like an empty vessel waiting to be filled, for the Creator instilled us with a natural instinct so that it cannot remain empty under any circumstances. That is why, when a person is full, … the same food that his soul had desperately desired at that very time … will be disgusting as one is disgusted by something bad. …
Therefore Ya’akov said: He saw contentment that it was good, meaning that the [Upper] World, which is referred to as “Contentment,” is good, in contrast to the illusory good of this world …

The first part of the verse displays the principle that the universe reacts to individual action. Sometimes the reaction can turn up in unpredictable places. Leah’s “going out,” which only appeared to be improper, led to Yissachar’s “wandering,” which itself is for a very good cause. Incidentally, the Rabbis associate Leah’s “going out” with her daughter Dinah’s “going out” in parashat Vayishlach, which had a much more negative outcome.

Or haChaim’s second comment gives us a profound insight into the workings of the mind and the path to spiritual growth. It is a commonplace that the mind is always wandering, but this wandering isn’t random. The mind wanders because it is seeking fulfillment. Permanent fulfillment is not possible in the impermanent, physical world, because that world is the world of change. In the example Or haChaim gives, food, which at one moment was desired to the point of craving, is found to be disgusting once one is satiated. As our Sages say, he who has one hundred desires two hundred. A person never dies with even half their desires fulfilled. The realm of the finite, one can always have more. It’s like an addiction, as we see in modern society. The mind “rests between the boundaries” – it is never permanently settled in the world of finite boundaries.

The solution is He saw contentment that is was good, “meaning that the [Upper] World, which is referred to as “Contentment,” is good. The infinite, transcendental realm is silent, boundless, pure existence and pure happiness. When the mind reaches that state, it is fulfilled and automatically ceases wandering – it is content. And the way to get there is to stop projecting the mind in the outer direction, and instead let it see Contentment. Once the mind is not being directed away from the transcendent, it will go towards the transcendent as naturally as a diver goes towards the water. And it is direct experience of the transcendent that changes our lives and our outlook all for the better.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parshah Vayechi (“And he lived”)

Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years, his end draws near; Israel asks Joseph to promise he will be buried in the Holy Land, with his fathers. Joseph swears.

From the point of view, Jacob is called “Jacob” when he toils, “Israel” when he is free from toil. When Jacob was wrestling with a man, then an angel, then Gd, he was toiling; when he prevailed, he was free from toil, and so called “Israel.”

Living in Egypt, Mitzraim, Restrictions, is living with toiling; returning to Canaan, Synchronicity, Wholeness, he will be free from restrictions, from toil, he will be “Israel.” So as his end draws near, he is blessed with a taste of his status as Israel and it is from this level of freedom, of Joy, that he asks Joseph to swear to bury his body in Canaan, the Holy Land, the Land of Wholeness.

We do not need to die in order to be free from toil. We can simply open ourselves to the deeper and deeper levels of Torah, the levels which are deeper than the level of meaning, which is a level of restrictions. We can open ourselves to Torah, within which all levels exist, Torah which is One with Gd, Totality. This is the real Holy Land, the real Land of Wholeness.

As Jacob, he becomes ill, toiling to rise from his bed when Joseph brings Joseph’s sons to him. When he sees Joseph’s sons, he is raised in spirit and is Israel.

As Israel, he blesses Joseph’s sons, and adopts them and as Israel he blesses Joseph, too, giving one portion more than he gives to his other sons.

It is as Jacob, though, that he assembles his other sons and blesses each of them, so this level of blessing involves toil, much harmony but to some degree out-of-tune with the Harmony of Gd.

But still! there is great harmony: When Jacob blesses his sons, he asks them to assemble and then he blesses them individually. This can be taken, and Rabbi Yehuda Berg of the Kabbalah Center takes it that way, to indicate that Jacob is emphasizing that the individual blessings will be fruitful when the sons act as an assembly, a unity, a family. And, when the tribes of Jacob’s sons are considered together, they are considered the Children of Israel, a unity, in Harmony, free from toil.

From this we can see an affirmation of what many of us already feel and act on: we are able to fulfill ourselves as individuals when we act together as a community, a family. It is through Love, through inclusion, gathering together, excluding no one, that we rise to the level of Israel, free from toil, completely in Harmony with Gd, with Oneness.

As the father of the Children of Israel, Israel dies and Joseph, Israel’s family and entourage (except for the youngest children who remain in Egypt tending the flocks), accompanied by Pharoah’s ministers, and many leaders of Mitzraim bring him and bury him in the cave of Machpelah,(“Cave of the Double Caves”, integration of restrictions and unboundedness) where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were buried.

This gathering of the leaders of Mitzraim, Restrictions, toil, with Israel’s family, taking Israel’s body to Canaan, Wholeness, is another example of how appreciation, love, can raise us to Wholeness.

Also, we can think of the “burying of the body” as “transcendence of the body, of individuality” and this takes place through Appreciation, Love, letting go the limited sense of self and rising to the Unlimited Experience of Self, the Common Self, All-in-All, One.

Physical death is not necessary to experience this transcendence: many in our congregation and many around the world experience this Unlimited Experience and, at least a few, are experiencing permanently.

May all souls experience this Teshuvah, this return to Full Awareness, so that all of Life lives in Fulfillment, in Harmony.

Baruch HaShem