Vayechi: Parting words

Vayechi: Parting words

Every baal koreh (Torah reader) faces a challenge when reading Parshat Vayechi, in that it is difficult to locate the beginning of the portion. Unlike other sidrot that start either after a break of nine letters in what is called a “parsha setumah” (closed) or on a new line, a “parsha petuchah” (open), Vayechi has no discernible break. The two sidrot of Vayigash and Vayechi are effectively linked and continuous without any indentation in the text. Rashi provides two reasons for this continuity in the text. “As soon as Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of Jewry were ‘closed’ [closed like the new sidrah of Vayechi without any new openings] by the sufferings of the bondage which came upon them.” Here we are referring to spiritual bondage as the period of slavery did not commence as long as one of Jacob’s sons was still alive. Rashi also explains that, “bikaish Ya’akov le’galot et ha-kaitz v’nistam mimenu” – “Jacob wanted to reveal the End of Days to his children but it was ‘closed’ to him.” This last observation is especially telling.

Jacob so very much desired to reveal the End of Days to his children so as to provide them with comfort and confidence for the difficult future he knew they would soon experience in slavery. Like any good parent, he wanted to offer a sneak preview of the future so that he could reassure them and allay their fears. Aware of God’s earlier communication with Abraham concerning the long night of exile and the protracted, painful experience of Egyptian bondage, Jacob in turn wished to raise their spirits in preparation for such. In Jewish eschatological thought the messianic end of time represents eternal hope and a certainty and conviction that good will ultimately triumph over evil. It was this solace and succor that Jacob wanted to provide to his sons. Yet, it was withheld from him (“v’nistam mimenu”).

We find herein established some basic principles concerning legacy and succession. The text is not only about last conversations and “letting go” but also adjusted sights. It is not for parents or their children to know how all events will unfold. Rather, we act purposefully in life with a perfect faith even as we are incapable of knowing what path will ultimately lead to our success and salvation. In a similar vein, Maimonides teaches us that after the destruction of the Holy Temple, “paskah nevuah mi-Yisrael,” prophecy ceased to exist for the Jewish people. Our faith community in its approach to family and life is very much rooted in the here and now. Indeed, we see in this episode a challenge to Jacob’s end of life thinking, which stretched beyond the present into the prophetic realm. Not unlike the well-intentioned, protective helicopter parents of today, Father Jacob of old hovers over his children, determined to guard them from unknown obstacles. Jacob thought he might shield his children from despair and anguish by providing a glimpse of the future, but ultimately these powers were denied him and his successors as well.

In a very real way this Torah portion, with which we end the account of the first families of our faith, provides us with the tools for meaningful yet measured life review. Jacob’s end-of-life encounter with his children establishes a limit on the parental reach into a child’s future. He summons them to his sickbed. “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days. Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father” (Genesis 49:1-2). “Jacob the Patriarch” is in every way committed to the conversation but attempts to invest it with more than is humanly possible to hear or know. Yet, even as he delivers a stirring ethical will to his children, leaving them with a sobering assessment of themselves, he is ultimately powerless to provide the map for their future. He can comment on their character but he cannot control their destiny.

It is a lesson for all times. We can set the stage for our successors to take, but the decisions and designs for later days must be theirs alone to make. We must share our thoughts and communicate our commitments with the hope that we can achieve a sense of the ripple effect of our earthly efforts moving beyond our years and into the lives of our progeny. However, we must also practice a different form of “netillat yadayim,” a healthy taking or removing of the hands, that does not wash them of the responsibility for that which we can and should provide in life, but realistically acknowledges what is ultimately beyond our reach when we finally pass. While Jacob sought to say more to his heirs with his parting words, the closed frame with its stifled sounds and muted message speaks volumes of what is best left unstated, but instead remains open to future generations for their own discovery and determination.