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Parashat Vayechi 5779 — 12/22/2018

Parashat Vayechi 5779 — 12/22/2018

Bereishit 47:28-50:26

With parashat Vayechi the Patriarchal period comes to an end with the deaths of Ya’akov and Yosef, and the forging of the nation in the “iron crucible” of Egyptian bondage begins. As we mentioned earlier, Yosef is a transitional figure between the Patriarchal era and the national era – he is one of Ya’akov’s sons, but he is also the father of two of the tribes that would go on to make up the Jewish nation. And his death is recorded in this parashah along with his father’s death, and then again at the beginning of Sefer Shemot (Exodus) along with the deaths of his brothers. Like his father, Yosef makes his brothers swear to bury him in the Land of Israel; unlike his father, he is tied to Egypt and his burial must await the redemption from Egypt, the severing of the ties that bound Israel to Egypt.

It seems to me that Yosef is a transitional figure in another sense – his reign over Egypt marks the transition of Israel from a highly spiritualized nation to one fully engaged in the material world. In the Land of Israel Ya’akov’s family were pastoralists, living simply off the land. They were shepherds, given to long periods alone where they could contemplate the nature of life and their relationship with Gd, where they had time free to meditate, where they could let the mind wander effortlessly within and expand.

Yosef, however, seems to have other things on his mind. From the beginning his dreams, and their fulfillment, go in a different direction. He dreams about sheaves of grain and dominance relationships. And indeed, his rise to power in Egypt is based on a plan to save agriculture in Egypt from 7 years of crop failures. Agriculture requires a lot of continuous hard work, but the reward is a more stable food supply. Famine drove all 3 generations of the Patriarchs to Egypt (Gd stopped Yitzchak from actually descending there, but he was headed that way). Yet in Egypt there was food, because Yosef had the foresight to store up the surplus grain from the years of plenty for the years of famine. This is not possible in animal husbandry – animals have to eat and drink every day or they die.

The upside of a regular food supply is that society can develop ever more complex, hierarchical structures and expand its boundaries. The downside of a regular food supply is that society can develop ever more complex, hierarchical structures and expand its boundaries. Such a society becomes dependent on stored up food, and acquisition of material goods becomes of paramount importance. This can lead to societies built on the exploitation of have-not’s by the have’s, as we see in the case of ancient Egypt, which was built on slave labor. Modern societies, whatever their ideology, generally suffer from the same problem.

In truth, of course, no amount of stored grain in one’s granary or dollars in one’s bank account can protect us from the vagaries of life. We are all going to die and we are all going to reap the consequences of our actions, whether in this lifetime or another lifetime. The Midrash tells us that the Egyptian people ran out of food not because of stupidity – they saw what Yosef was up to and tried to store grain for themselves, only to see it rot. Yosef’s grain stayed fresh either miraculously, or because he had learned how to mix the grain with some local earth, which preserved it for a longer time. We can never find safety and security in the material world, because it is a world of change, and often, a world of upheaval.

I think this was exactly the point that Yosef was trying to drive home to his family when he settled them in Goshen, away from the main centers of Egyptian life and culture, where they could continue to make a living as shepherds, albeit with some kind of backup source of sustenance. And perhaps this was exactly the lesson that Pharaoh’s dream was supposed to convey – you look to the Nile as your source of sustenance, but just as Gd makes the Nile flood each year, so can Gd hold back the floods. Unfortunately for Egypt, Yosef also provided them a plan to deal with the famine, as a result of which all the money in the world came to Pharaoh’s coffers. Lesson not learned. In fact, even the Israelites didn’t seem to learn the lesson. The next chapter, the opening chapter of Sefer Shemot, describes how, upon the death of “Yosef and his brothers and all that generation,” the Israelites became “grabbed” by Egypt, assimilating into its culture, including its idolatry, and forgetting the legacy of the Patriarchs. It would take 210 years of brutal subjugation and 10 deadly plagues for both Egypt and Israel to wake back up to the truth that “there is nothing besides Him” (Deut 4:35).

In the end though, our tradition teaches us that Gd is the only reality. Everything that we see around us, including our own bodies and our whole personality, is an expression of Gd. Gd created the laws of nature upon which we depend, but they are not the ultimate cause of what happens anywhere. Our action is not the cause of our success; we must act because that is the way Gd set up the world – as an arena where we make choices and act upon them – but the fruits of our action are always determined by Gd, as it says, man tracht und Gott lacht (people plan and Gd laughs). Yosef certainly knew this, as he consoles his brothers: You meant me harm, but Gd meant it for good to save a multitude.

Our job on earth is to realize this fundamental truth on the level of awareness, not simply on the level of intellectual assent. The first commandment, according to Rambam, is not to believe in Gd, but to know Gd. This requires refinement of our consciousness and refinement of our perception. Yosef haTzaddik was able to reach great heights even from the depths of an Egyptian dungeon. We, who live in a grossly materialistic society, have a similar challenge. Let’s do all we can to meet it.

Note: I have not quoted R. Goldin explicitly this week, although I certainly acknowledge that I have drawn from his ideas. As always, credit to R. Goldin, blame to me.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat 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.

Then, 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 some degree of 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 Twelve Tribes 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 Twelve Tribes 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, 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 of the limited sense of self and rising to the Unlimited Experience of Self, the Common Self, All-in-All, One.

Baruch HaShem