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Parashat VaYechi 5773 — 12/26/2012

Parashat VaYechi 5773 — 12/26/2012

As for me, I have given you one portion (shechem achad) more than your brothers, which I will take (alt: which I took) from the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.  (48:22)

Ya’acov also gave Yosef the portion that was his in the inheritance of Eretz Yisrael, which Yosef would take possession of when they conquered the land with the sword and bow and with warfare.  (Ramban ad loc)

Before he is niftar, Ya’akov informs Yosef that he is giving him an additional portion of land over what his brothers will receive (Bereishis 48:22). Ya’akov refers to this land as land he “took from the Emorites,” even though he is referring to land that was not actually in klal Yisrael’s possession yet. The Ibn Ezra on this passuk explains that once Hashem promised Ya’akov that Eretz Yisrael would be given to him, it became such a reality that Ya’akov spoke as if it was already in his possession… Ya’akov was able to interact with the world, while simultaneously maintaining the outlook that the word of Hashem is the ultimate reality.  (Ibn Ezra ad loc quoted in al haRishonim)

As Ya’akov Avinu is about to take leave of his body, he blesses his children and his descendants (us!) with blessings that will help us evolve towards the level of perfection that Ya’akov himself attained.  In so doing he delineates the proper relationship between the physical and the spiritual domains.

Before he calls all his sons together Ya’akov has a private meeting with Yosef, the firstborn of Rachel, Ya’akov’s primary wife.  At this meeting he adjures Yosef to bury him with Avraham and Yitzchak in the cave that Avraham had purchased for Sarah’s burial.  At this point he gives Yosef the firstborn’s “double portion” – he elevates Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe to the status of full tribes, like their uncles Reuven and Shimon.  In addition he gives Yosef the Shechem region (complete with pun – shechem achad means “an extra portion”).  Now part of this region had actually been purchased by Ya’akov, as related in Parashat Vayishlach.  The city itself had been destroyed by his sons Shimon and Levi in the incident of the rape of their sister Dinah.  Nonetheless, the whole gift could only refer to a time in the future, after the Exodus from Egypt.

I think that the contrasting approaches of Ramban and ibn Ezra to the expression “which I will take / that I took” reflect two different approaches to understanding Ya’akov’s vision of reality.  The Hebrew language has an interesting locution, called the “conversive vav.”  The vav is the letter which generally indicates “and” – ani v’hu = “I and he.”  If you read the King James translation of the Bible, you’ll notice that there are an awful lot of “and”s – no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.  Most of these however do not indicate “and,” but rather serve to toggle tenses between past and future.  Thus, for example, the second verse in the Sh’ma begins v’ahavta et Hashem….  Translated literally it would read “and you loved Hashem…”  Of course you can check any siddur and see that the verse is actually translated “you shall love Hashem” – a command, referring to a future state.

Our verse is in the straight past tense: literally translated it read “which I took from the Amorite.”  Ramban renders it in the future, since Ya’akov and the family were in Egypt, and were destined to remain there for another couple of centuries.  In other words, Ramban refers to the situation as it actually appears in the narrative.  Ya’akov “gives” Shechem to Yosef, even though actual possession – the “taking” of our verse – will not occur until far in the future.  This approach to prophecy we might call a “predictive” approach, akin to what the word prophet has come to mean in modern English.

Ibn Ezra renders the verse more literally, in the past tense.  Now there is certainly justification for this rendering (besides the fact that it is literally correct) – Ya’akov had bought the field where he had encamped outside Shechem, and his sons Shimon and Levi had “conquered” the city.  The book al haRishonim explains differently, and indicates that ibn Ezra’s view of the mindset of a prophet is quite different from that of ordinary people.

We need to bear in mind that time is as much a part of creation as space is.  This was clear for a long time before Einstein, but in the last hundred years or so we have gotten a much clearer picture of how closely space and time are interrelated.  Now there is nothing terribly astonishing about the fact that we are able to perceive an entire region of space at a glance.  What is different about a prophet, according to ibn Ezra, is that he us able to take in an entire region of time “at a glance” as well.  Thus even something which Gd has promised will take place in the future, is as if it is in the past to one who is “above” time as it were, and able to look down and comprehend a “timescape.”  Perhaps another way to explain this is that the prophet sees not so much with his physical eyes, but with his spiritual self which is transcendent to the entire physical realm; from such a vantage point past, present and future are all conflated.  Maybe this is why Hebrew, which is the language of prophecy (the language of creation itself according to our tradition) has the conversive vav – to indicate to us that our ordinary view of time is lacking in richness and fullness.  We can only perceive the physical properly from a spiritual perspective.  The underlying reality is, as al haRishonim describes it, the Word of Hashem.  When our awareness is established in this reality, only then can we truly interact with the physical in a wholesome way.

We are about to move from the story of the founders of our nation to the story of the building of the nation itself.  We might say that our purpose as a nation is to take the spiritual foundation laid by the patriarchs and “scale it up” to national, global and eventually cosmic proportions.  Ya’akov’s final charge to his sons models the ideal perspective towards which we all should strive – our awareness established in infinity, our minds and our bodies radiating health, happiness and harmony to everyone and everything in our environment.