AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Vayechi

Parashat Vayechi

Tevet 14, 5780 – January 11, 2020

Torah Reading: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Haftarah: Kings I 2:1-12

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vayechi, which means “and he lived.” This is our twelfth Torah reading for the year, and it is the last parashah in the book of Genesis. Vayechi is unique, in that it is referred to as a “closed section” in a Torah scroll – ordinarily, each parashah is separated from the previous reading by a new line or at least a nine-letter space.[1] But between Vayigash and Vayechi there is no space, a “closure” that is meant to direct us to pause and reflect upon the previous verses.[2] In case you haven’t noticed, the Hebrew naming of the biblical books and Torah sections are sourced from the literal beginning of each book and each parashah, which also expresses the figurative content of the reading. The English translations piggy back on this latter point and correlate to the conceptual themes surrounding the Scripture, which – for Genesis – is about renewal. Parashat Vayechi opens up with the impending death of Jacob, and the spiritual exile that will begin after his passing. This year (in the northern hemisphere where I reside), Vayechi is read after the winter solstice, after the darkest period of the year when the days are the shortest. This is what is occurring during the holiday of Chanukah, when this contraction of light is commemorated, before a new bursting forth of light. Now, as the days grow longer, and as we grow into this expansion of light, we are asked to reflect upon the actions and ideals that inspire us, that refresh our intentions, and that renew the spiritual aspects of our life that have been neglected. The death of Jacob, and its concurrence with the conclusion of Genesis, is a condition that is meant to help us think about – and prepare for – the physical and emotional trials that lay ahead. Our spiritual rejuvenation is paramount to the overcoming of these travails, and the rushing forth of light. In this respect, Torah study, the human lifecycle, and the earth’s natural cycles should be synergistic movements that parallel one another, which is the awe-inspiring premise that grounds the Torah in ecological principles.

The opening of Parashat Vayechi is somewhat reminiscent of Parashat Chayei Sarah, in that the naming of the parashah concerns a period of Jacob’s life, but the contents of the parashah are devoted to the events leading up to his death. But vayechi, or “he lived” points to the conditions in which Jacob lived in Egypt, and the spiritual legacy and ideals that he secured through his children. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, gave a teaching that split the 147 years of Jacob’s life into three general phases: his first 77 years were spent in Eretz Yisrael in “tents of study,” where he was relatively sheltered from the trappings of a material life; these years were followed by 20 years in Haran working for Laban, growing a family, and amassing material wealth; and the third phase is characterized by his descent into Egypt and the 17 years that he spends in a true state of exile.[3] The three phases encapsulate three states of being that we all move through, and experience in our lives – and these are: sovereignty, struggle, and subjugation. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Book of Genesis, writes: “Everything that happened to the patriarchs is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates its account of their journeys…[they] come as an instruction for the future.”[4] The phase of life that Jacob spent in Egypt is characterized by subjugation, whereby he was forced to recognize the authority of Pharaoh, who is described as a “monarch of world power.”[5] But we all have times in our lives when we are faced with circumstances that are outside of our control, and we must learn how to navigate a sense of powerlessness. It is, perhaps, our refusal to heed to such moments that has got us into severe, environmental trouble. Nature is incredibly powerful, and even something as simple as getting caught in a riptide can provide a bit of insight into this point. The main suggestion here, though, is that the environmental crisis has its roots in our desire to dominate and control natural forces – the introduction of invasive species to regulate ecosystem imbalances, the manipulation of weather patterns, and the genetic modification of various foods are just a few examples of forms of intervention that demonstrate this longing to control. But, at the core of the solution to the environmental crisis is a willful subjugation – on our part, in some instances – to the tremendous power of nature and to the earth. There are moments that call for us to recognize the futility of the penchant for control – or even the inclination to resist – which is why Jacob’s descent into Egypt is a movement that can serve as a signpost for our environmental actions, now. The greatest challenge in the world that is presently evolving has much to do with the environmental disorientation that is to follow in the wake of climate change. Weather patterns are changing, climate zones are shifting, and we are entering a phase of unprecedented patterns that are the cause of much confusion.[6] The absence of patterns is a form of chaos, a form of exile, that must be navigated by prescribed times of subjugation. Those whom are living in the modern world have, in a sense, descended into Egypt.

Parashat Vayechi begins with a request that Jacob makes to Joseph: “Please,” he says “if I have found favor in your eyes…please do not bury me in Egypt. For I will lie down with my fathers and you shall transport me out of Egypt and bury me in their tomb.” (47:29-30) Jacob asked of Joseph, that – when he passes –his body be brought to Eretz Yisrael and buried in the Cave of Machpelah.[7] Joseph does agree to this promise, before Jacob gives a special blessing to Manasseh and Ephraim – Joseph’s two sons. The blessing was special because it elevated Manasseh and Ephraim to the status of Jacob’s sons, as tribal inheritors within the nation of Israel.[8] Rashi states that “this constituted a blessing for Joseph as well, because the greatest mark of his success in maintaining his spiritual integrity in Egypt was that his sons, born on foreign soil, were worthy of such a lofty status in G-d’s nation.”[9] But there is some switching of the hands that occurs during the blessing, and Ephraim (the youngest) is given the right-handed blessing of the firstborn. There is a bit of a perplexing incident, at this point, whereby Jacob wished to tell his children about the End of Days when the Messiah would come, but Rashi comments that the “Divine Presence deserted him.”[10] Jacob then proceeds to bless his sons, he highlights the character and ability of each individual tribe that will be unique to them and their descendants. This moment is likened to Adam’s naming of the animals at the beginning of time, because – like Adam, who understood each animal’s role within the cosmos – Jacob also had the ability to foresee and assign to his sons their respective missions.[11] After Jacob’s death, he is then embalmed and is mourned by Egypt for a lengthy period. [As an aside, embalming is an Egyptian custom, and is forbidden in Judaism. There are explanations for why this occurred to Jacob, but let it suffice to say that one could argue that it falls under this theme of subjugation discussed previously, and relates to how it is navigated with integrity and decency.[12]] Next, a burial procession, with all the brothers, leaves Egypt to head up to Israel. The Talmud relates (Sotah 13a) that, at this juncture in the Torah, a confrontation occurs with Esau over Jacob’s right to be buried in the cave. After this, the parashah finishes with Joseph’s passing at the age of 110, and he asks his brothers to take his body out of Egypt – although this only occurs many years later with the exodus from Egypt. And this concludes the book of Genesis.

The ecological message for this week revolves around the blessings that Jacob gives to his children. It is important to mention that several of the blessings – such as those given to Judah, Zebulun, and Asher – relate the mission of the tribe to a geographical location and an agricultural purpose. Asher will grow olives, Judah will produce grapes and wine, and Zebulun settles by the seashores.[13] The point here is that the roles of the tribes are tied to the notion that it is predestined that they will be custodians of their own land. Each tribe is given a specific task to manage and work with that land, which will contribute to the Israelites’ ability to sustainably function as a civilization. The Levites are an exception to this rule, because they are to become the priestly class, and the tribe of Levi does not inherit any portion of the land of Israel. While they will serve G-d in such a respect, Jacob indicates in his blessing to Levi and Simeon (who are taken as a pair) that – due to their attack on the males of Shechem – that they both lost their right to have any authority over the nation (as a king would).[14] Reuben was rebuked due to his relations with Bilhah, and Jacob makes it clear that his actions were “hasty and reckless like fast-flowing waters.”[15] The next oldest, Simeon and Levi, due to their preoccupation with the “weaponry of violence”[16] were unfit to succeed Jacob as rulers. The next in line in was Judah, which is the tribe from which the Davidic monarchy arises (King Saul was from the Tribe of Benjamin). What I’d like to point out, though, is that Simeon and Levi misused the spiritual tools of the sword and the bow. Jacob alludes to this when states to Joseph: “I have given you Shechem – one more portion than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.” (48:21) The “weaponry of violence” that Simeon and Levi used to attack the city of Shechem, were considered traits that they got from Esau.[17] Esau, as discussed in a previous commentary, was a bow hunter, and was described as having an unhealthy propensity for killing. But in this instance, Jacob is using the terms ‘sword’ and ‘bow’ to refer to “figurative names for spiritual weapons”[18] – the sword is equated to sharp wisdom, and the bow with prayer. The ecological significance of this detail is that an improper relationship between hunting tools (the sword and the bow) and the act of hunting is what squanders the ability to have a meaningful relationship with the land. Esau loses his birthright, as do the older brothers, and they are therefore rendered undeserving of a position to gain access to the land (Shechem is additional territory given to Manasseh and Ephraim). The Levites, for instance, must rely on the tithes from the other tribes for their livelihood – a connection to the land is contingent upon spiritual strength, not brute force. The fact that you can hunt, that you can wield a sword and a bow, is irrelevant if those tools are not guided by a sincere, spiritual practice and by the right mentality. This is a monumental point to take away from this parashah, and is hopefully something worth pondering.[19]

There’s a truly wonderful moment, after the completion of a book of the Torah, for a congregation to proclaim: Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik! (which means, Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!) I just thought I’d throw this in there because I find it uplifting. Congratulations we finished Genesis!

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week!

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Topics Include: Willful subjugation to the earth as an approach to navigating climate change, Jacob’s blessings of the tribes and their relationship to agricultural responsibilities, and the sword and bow as metaphors for instruments to interact with the land

Works Cited:

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.268

[2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.268

[3] Tauber, “The Three Lives of Jacob.”

[4] As found in Tauber, “The Three Lives of Jacob.”

[5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.263 under commentary “Jacob and Pharaoh meet.”

[6] Take, for instance, species that have long relied on pressure shifts or temperature alterations to embark on long migrations. They are no longer able to follow weather patterns that have taken them to various habitats that have supplied them along their long journeys throughout their history.

[7] There are, of course, several explanations for why Jacob made this request. Rashi gives three examples: 1) Jacob knew that Egypt would one day be plagued with lice which would have affected his body, those buried outside of the Holy Land cannot be resurrected once the Messiah comes, and Jacob did not want the tomb to be a site of idol worship for the Egyptians. (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.268)

[8] The Torah continually reiterates that there are twelve tribes, even though the tribe of Joseph was divided into the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim. If the circumstance calls for the tribe of Levi to be counted, then the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim are combined and listed as the tribe of Joseph. This would be a situation that applies to the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol and the blessings that are pronounced at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal when the nation entered the land (Deut. 18:1). But because the tribe of Levi do not inherit any portion of the land of Israel (except for 48 towns as living quarters) (this applies also to the tribal encampments around the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, whereby the Levites had no territory) Manasseh and Ephraim are counted as two separate tribes. (Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.283)

[9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.271

[10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.275

[11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.275

[12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.285

[13] The Talmud also relates (Megillah 6b) that the beaches of Zebulun were home to the mollusks from which the techelet dye could be extracted, which is used to color the tzitzit and the clothing of the high priest. (Sinclair, “Parashat Vayechi: Eating Holy Food in a Holy Way”)

[14] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.277

[15] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.276

[16] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.277

[17] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.277

[18] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.274

[19] At the end of Parashat Vayigash, Jacob and his family settled in the land of Goshen. The final verse of the parashah states: “Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the region of Goshen; they acquired property in it and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” (47:27) The Hebrew word for “acquired property” is “va’ye’ah’chazu” (וַיֵּאָֽחֲז֣וּ ). The word “achuzah” (meaning “estate”) comes from the root word “achaz” (meaning “to grasp”). Perhaps the improper use of the sword and the bow has to do with this paradox? (Feldman, “The Estate of Goshen.”) We must acquire land without grasping it? Is this about hunting and gathering?

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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