18 Tevet 5781
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3: 1) quotes Akavia ben Mehalalel: “Consider three things, and you will not sin. You must know where you come from, where you are going and to whom you will eventually be accountable for everything you have done”.
As I read this portion from Pirkei Avot, I realized that it sums up the process of human life, which is what Parashat Vayechi (“And he lived”) means – It takes us on a cycle from conception to transcendence. Bereshit is a book that begins with the concept of a unique, universal God who creates life and ends with the duality of transcendence for some and death for others.
I speak of transcendence because the Torah teaches us in chapter 49:33… “vaye’esof raglav el-hamitah vaye’asef el-amav” …… “וַיֶּאֱסֹף רַגְלָיו אֶל-הַמִּטָּה; וַיִּגְוַע, וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל-עַמָּיו.” And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired – Vayigva-, and was gathered unto his people.” It never mentions that Jacob died, giving us the idea explained by Rabbi Uriel Romano and mentioned in Taanit 5b “As his seed is still alive, so he is still alive.” Yaakov died physically, but his spirit and his story remain alive if his seed, his people, are alive.
But what is life? Life is a cluster of decisions that bring consequences for which we can either assume responsibility for our actions or flee from this responsibility, which in the end also bears consequences: blessing or curse. By reading the book of Bereshit, we understand that for every action there is a reaction, and that, at the end of the day, every reaction is for our own good.
In this portion we read three words that begin with the letter bet:
The first word – Bechirah: Free Will – we have the freedom to choose. Yosef chose to forgive his brothers; his brothers chose to forgive themselves and rectify their actions towards Yosef; Yaakov chose to bless his children and decided to bless Efraim over Menashe; Yaakov chose which of his children deserved the birthright; Yosef chose to obey his father on his deathbed, and his brothers chose to close the cycle of their restoration with Yosef by swearing to bring his bones back to Israel.
The Second word – Bechorah – Birthright: We learn that birthright is a blessing that does not depend upon the biological order of birth, rather it is a blessing that rewards the merit of actions during life, as one saying goes “one action is worth a thousand words”. In Bereshit, we learned that the birthright was not necessarily given to the first son, Itzhak was the second biological son; Yaakov was the second biological son; Yosef was the eleventh biological son. From this, we learn that what the Western world calls “law” and what we call Torah, is not a compendium of rigid and frivolous laws, but rather of principles to be applied to our everyday lives according to specific situations.
The third bet is Brachah – Blessing: This portion tells us that Yaakov gathered his sons to bless them, but, when we read the blessings for Reuben, Shimon, and Levi, they seem to be more of a wake-up call to improve their character. In the secular world, it a blessing is considered a wish for good things, for money, for egomaniacal benefits, and for “prosperity”, but here we learn that it is also a blessing when someone (especially our fathers) confront us; when someone has to courage to stand up and tell us what we need to rectify in our lives to reach the world to come and draw closer to the Eternal for the good of the community.
We see how Yaakov curses the anger of his sons because they allowed their initial irritation to turn into anger because of what happened to Dinah; this resulted in an irreversible act; they allowed their anger to brew over many days, causing them to massacre an entire village. Because that process went unchecked, it turned to insanity to the point that they committed senseless acts of murder in Shechem. We need to beware that we do not allow something that simply begins by “bothering” us, then slowly turns into anger, to the point that it becomes so annoying that it finally provokes madness in us where we can no longer govern ourselves; that is when we lose our free will.
That is why Yaakov criticized anger, which in itself is not bad, except when it develops into violence. He teaches us that the way to peace should be: “to separate two people with these qualities and disperse them among their brothers.” Note that our justice system seeks the destruction of people with anger while Yaakov, by dispersing them among the nation, helps the community to grow. How? They will learn virtue from their brothers, and they will add a little of their anger to their brothers. But you may ask, “is the anger positive”? Like everything, within measure, anger is good; it comes in handy when we need to defend ourselves, when we look to seek and exercise justice, to communicate to others what is bothering us, among other things. It is “unchecked” anger that leads to violence. The Torah warns against acting hastily upon our instincts and without thinking; that is the blessing he gave to Reuben. If we read it superficially, it seems that Yaakov did not forgive his son for the act committed, but we can see Yaakov’s love for Reuben by him first highlighting his qualities and speaking well about him; what Yaakov did was to show him his love by indicating that to grow, he must improve by not being unstable and impulsive.
Vayechi also shows us the importance of making our wishes and the division of property clear before our death; how important it is to maintain peace between siblings! That is why it says that Yaakov “ordered his children”, that is, he made his role clear to the nation.
Finally, we see how this new nation began to form; a nation that grew upon the threshold of restriction, of exile from Mitzrayim to fulfill a promise that God made to Abraham. For this reason, I would like to highlight the importance of keeping our word, our promises, that we cannot act in an unstable manner or get carried away like Reuben, but that we must fulfill the commitments that we have made before God or before our parents or even ourselves. We read about the integrity of Yosef when he buried his father in Machpelah as he had sworn. We read about the integrity of his brothers by guarding their bones and bringing them to the land of Israel. We read about the integrity of Yosef in keeping his promise that he would not harm his brothers. However, we also read in the blessing of Benjamin: “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he devours the prey, and at evening he divides the spoil.” (Chap. 49:27). Rabbi Hirsch interprets this as a prophecy about the destruction of Amalek; the morning refers to the dawn of the reign. The first Jewish king, Shaul, from the tribe of Benjamin, almost wiped-out Amalek, but did not complete the task, leaving King Agag to live for one more night, allowing him to produce a progeny. “In the evening” refers to Mordechai and Esther, the descendants of Shaul, who would end up with Haman, Agag’s grandson, and then proceeded to divide his wealth. From this, we can learn that fulfilling a mandate halfway can lead to painful consequences, and how not having completed this task almost led to our extermination!
In conclusion, we in our community, Kehilat She’ar Yashuv knows where we come from, to whom we are accountable, and although we must refine the vehicle that we take to define our destiny in this secular year 2021, we know that we are headed toward a greater purpose, to fulfill our role in the world, to be “open letters” for humanity and fulfill what is written in the Torah by our actions. This is to reach the level taught by our rabbis Percy Johnson and Yeshua when they told us: “And I will walk among you and will be your GOD, and you shall be My people.” (Vayikra 26:12).
חֲזַק חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזֵּק “Hazak, hazak, venitchazek” “
Be strong, be strong, let us strengthen each other!