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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Parshas Vayechi - Generations and Identity

The story of the end of Yaakov's life takes place in Parshas Vayechi, the word "Vayechi" meaning "and he lived". It seems paradoxical that the story of Yaakov's death should be titled with the beginning "and he lived", yet that is the true approach to both life and death. Yaakov's life was truly worthwhile and meaningful because he lived it. His legacy was in the sons he left behind and the nation he built. While Yaakov dies in Vayechi, he lives on in the birth of the Jewish nation.

Before Yaakov Avinu passes away he insists that his son Yosef swear an oath to bury him in Caanan, within Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. He insists on an oath, Tahat Yirechi, something that only Avraham had insisted on, when it came to finding a wife for his son Yitzchak not from the people of Caanan. What is the connection between the two? The answer is that both are fundamental to the question of Jewish identity. Avraham's oath insisted on a rejection of intermarriage and Yaakov's oath insisted that the rightful place even in death of a Jew was to be in the land of Israel. The "Tahat Yirechi" nature of the oath linked it to the Brit Milah, the covenant that defined Jewish identity through generation and progeneration.

Both Avraham and Yaakov expected that they would be dead before the oath could be fulfilled and their oath rested on the future and the future of their descendants. Avraham understood that the Jewish people could not exist if Yitzchak intermarried and Yaakov understood that if he 'Yisrael' were to be buried in Egypt, the life of Am Yisrael too would be rooted in Egypt. It would have been easy for Avraham and Yaakov to choose the easy way, to assimilate and mingle with the cultures and peoples they found themselves among. The oaths of Avraham and Yaakov were meant to preserve a unique Jewish identity.

Had Yaakov/Yisrael been buried in Egypt, there would have been little reason for his descendants to think that Egypt and slavery was not their place. Yet though Yaakov descended to Egypt, he was determined that at least his body should return to his native land. And though his grandchildren and great-grandchildren remained as hostages in Egypt, he was buried as a free man besides his forefathers. As Yosef had led the way into Egypt, Yaakov in his mission as Yisrael led the way out of it, his burial serving as a symbol that it was better to be buried in the humble ground of Israel than to rest in honor in the pyramids of Egypt.

Rashi tells us that with Yaakov's death, Nistemu Einom VeLibom Shel Yisrael, the Eyes and Hearts of the People of Israel Became Closed. Why did their eyes and hearts become closed? Without his guidance, their sensibilities became dulled. Before the actual slavery took place, their sensibilities became enslaved to the culture and values of Egypt. Their eyes were unable to see the wrongness around them and their hearts lacked the sensitivity to feel distaste for an immoral culture. Al Tatiru Aharei Levachem Veaharei Einechem Asher Atem Zonim Ahareichem, we are warned. First the heart lusts and then the eyes see objects in the world that can satisfy those lusts. The eyes of the descendants of Yaakov had become closed to higher things because they were focused on the materialism to be found in the fleshpots of Egypt.

Yaakov's oath to Yosef created the first breach with Pharaoh, a breach that likely set the pace for the distrust, hostility and outright anti-semitism that paved the way for slavery and genocide. Yet despite Yosef's latter attempts to repair by distancing himself from his brothers, he could not maintain this distance against their heartfelt pleas. Yaakov's oath to Yosef, as Eliezer's oath to Avraham, served as a fundamental reminder of national identity.

On his deathbed Yaakov surveyed the future of his sons not only as men but as nations, each one set to go forth and build a nation that would both rise and fall and be rich in triumphs and defeats. Yaakov saw it all, from slavery to exodus, from the conquest to the exile, from victory to holocaust and from the chains of Egypt to the coming of the Messiah and blessed each and every one of them before he died with the future that G-d had bequeathed to him unfolding all around him.

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