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PARSH AT VAY’ CHI

THE DE ATH o f YA’AK OV


Ra bbi Ari Kahn

The Portion of Vay’chi is different from the other Parshiot in the Torah. The
beginning of other portions is generally delineated by a new paragraph or least an
indentation in the text of the Torah, while the portion of Vay’chi is "satum," closed.
Rashi quotes the Midrash, which explains this idiosyncrasy, by suggesting:

"Why is this portion closed ("satum")? The death of Ya'akov caused a


closing of the eyes and hearts of Israel, due to the troubles of the
oppression which began (with Ya'akov`s death). Alternatively: (Ya'akov)
wished to reveal the end of days to his children, but it was closed
("nistam")to him." (Rashi 47:28, based on B`reishit Rabba 96:1)

The death of Ya'akov represents the end of an era. With his demise, the
patriarchal age comes to a close and a new generation will begin. The portion of
Vay’chi is the end of the book of B`reishit, literally as well as ideologically. Rashi’s
comments establish Vay’chi as not only the close of a book, but at a closed book.
Ya'akov felt that the end of B`reishit was the perfect time to reveal to his children
what awaits them and their descendants in the future. At the moment this
revelation was to take place, Ya'akov's clairvoyance eluded him.

"And Ya'akov called his sons and said gather, and I will tell you, what will
happen to you in the end of days... Reuven you are my first born....49:1,3

Ya'akov gathers his children, his stated intention to inform them of events in the
future. Instead he proceeds to bless his children.

"Ya'akov wished to reveal the "Ketz" -the end of days- but the Sh`chinah (G-
d’s presence) left him, so Ya'akov began to say other things"( Rashi 49:1
based on Talmud Pesachim 56a)

Ya’akov’s response to the loss of his vision is fear. The Talmud describes the
scene;

"Ya'akov wished to reveal the "Ketz" -the end of days- but the Shekhina (G-
d’s presence) left him. He (Ya'akov) said, ‘Perhaps there is an inadequacy in
my bed (with my children) like Avraham who fathered Yishmael. Or my
father Yitzchak who fathered Esav’. His sons said to him, "Shma Yisrael
Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Echad- Listen Yisrael, G-d is Lord G-d is One"-
They said "Just as in your heart there is only One (G-d), so, too, in our heart
there is only One." At that moment Ya'akov responded and said; "Boruch
Shem Kevod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed - Blessed be the honorable Name of his
Kingship forever and ever" (Pesachim 56a)
When Ya’akov’s desire to share his knowledge with his children was frustrated, he
feared that this was indicative of some lack in his children, and therefore in
himself, and by extension, a deficiency within "Keneset Yisrael" - the Congregation
of Israel. As we have seen in earlier sections (particularly Vayetze), the children of
Ya'akov are no longer individuals; they represent the Nation of Israel. If something
is lacking in Ya’akov’s children, the repercussions will be felt by the entire Nation.
For Ya'akov, the situation is frightening: On his death bed, it is too late for him to
rectify the problem. In his mind, he has failed.

The Talmud connects Ya'akov’s fear with the errant offspring of his father and
grandfather. Why should Ya'akov have expected that his children would be
greater than his revolutionary grandfather’s, or his saintly father’s? If Avraham
could father a Yishmael, and Yitzchak could father an Esav, why would Ya'akov
expect that his own "bed be complete"? This question is closely related to the
Kabbalistic discussion of the three Avot (Forefathers), specifically the importance
of the number 3. Why were there 3 Avot and not 2, or for that matter 6? What
delineates the era of the Avot, which, as we have noted, comes to an end in our
parsha?

According to Kabbalistic thought, each of the three Avot created a spiritual


awareness in the world; each established one of the three pillars necessary to
support the establishment of the Nation. Avraham, who is identified with
"Chesed" (kindness), brings the G-dly aspect of Chesed into this world. Yitzchak
represents "G`vurah" or "Din" (justice). The Din of Yitzchak is, in a sense,
antithetical to chesed, but each is required as a counterbalance for the other.
Ya'akov represents "Tiferet" (beauty), a synthesis between Chesed and G`vurah.
To borrow the Hegalian model, the Avot represent thesis, antithesis, and
synthesis. Once synthesis is achieved, the nation can emerge.

There is, however, another side to this coin, for in addition to the synthesis,
another philosophical thread is woven through our history. Avraham also fathered
Yishmael. What was the spiritual makeup of Yishmael? According to Rabbinic
teaching, Yishmael was the counterfeit of Avraham. Instead of truly emulating his
father or establishing his own spiritual legacy, Yishmael imitated his father in a
superficial, external manner. Avraham represents chesed, the main trait of chesed
is giving, but even an exalted gesture like chesed can have a counterfeit
application. The act of giving is G-dly, but giving, too, must have its limitations.
Chesed taken to an extreme can be insidious, can lead to immorality and sexual
licentiousness. In fact, when the Torah describes the prohibition of sexual relations
between siblings the Torah labels it "chesed":

"A man who takes his sister, daughter of his father or daughter of his
mother, and saw her nakedness, and she saw his nakedness, it is "chesed".
They shall be cut off from in front of their nation; his sister’s nakedness he
uncovered! He shall bear his sin." (Vayikra 20:17)
Chesed is the act of giving, but even the giving must be governed by some type
of moral system. Herein lies the Rabbis’ indictment of Yishmael; Yishmael made
cynical use of his father’s teachings.

"Rabbi Akiva taught, 'And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the
Egyptian,'(21),...[he was guilty of] sexual immorality...this teaches us that
Sarah our mother saw (was aware) Yishmael conquer young maidens, and
"hunt" married women, and abuse them. (Midrash Rabba 53:11)

How is it possible that Avraham could have raised a son like Yishmael? The answer
is that Yishmael twisted the great teachings of Avraham. We can imagine the
nature of Yishmael`s arguments. "If my father taught us that chesed is what is
important, if you are really dedicated to the idea of chesed, then you should give
your body." Avraham taught the idea of love, Yishmael taught "free love". If
Avraham taught that we should “love our neighbors as our selves”, then Yishmael
taught that we should love our neighbors’ wives or husbands. The counterfeit, or,
in the language of the mystics, the "klipa" of chesed, was "giluy arayot," sexual
immorality. This was the domain of Yishmael.
Yitzchak endeavored to create a spiritual balance to his father’s chesed. His
greatness was G`vurah, strength, a second aspect of G-d. The Jewish teaching of
G`vurah is encapsulated in the words of the sages:

Who is considered strong? He who controls his desires (Avot 4:2)

As G-d controlled His infiniteness to create a finite world, man must control
himself, and a beautiful world will emerge. The klipa of G`vurah is the individual
who tries to control or dominate others. The “worst-case scenario” is when the
desire to control actually leads to bloodshed. This was Esav’s forte, as is
suggested by his name Edom: Esav was red, as Rashi explains:

"He was red, this is a sign that he will spill blood" (25:25)

Esav, like his uncle Yishmael, was superficial. He did not deeply understand his
father’s teachings. He twisted the idea of G’vurah into a mandate to control, and
ultimately to take life. The fact that Esav took wives from the daughters of
Yishmael should come as no surprise: These two had more in common than mere
ancestry, and the result was the combination of their negative forces. Ya'akov, on
the other hand, internalized the positive aspects of the teachings of Avraham and
Yitzchak, and he came to represent the combination of their two traits, Chesed
and G`vurah, in the third philosophical pillar, Tiferet - beauty. The Trait of Tiferet
sees beauty in all things, in differences and distinctions, and is able to create a
harmonious synthesis. Ya'akov, who becomes Yisrael, the Nation, must be able to
combine all sorts of ideas, experiences, outlooks. This, in contradistinction to
Avraham or Yitzchak, whose traits represent spiritual building-blocks, but not the
spiritual building.

Once this synthesis is in place the nation should emerge. Ya'akov`s bed should be
complete. In Ya'akov’s children we do not find any counterfeit. The klipa of the
newly-emergent Jewish Nation is the "erev rav", those responsible for the worship
of the Golden Calf. They were not the descendants of Ya'akov, rather impostors,
who joined the People of Israel in their victorious march out of Egypt. They, too,
had a superficial grasp of the philosophical underpinnings of Judaism. To them,
the trait of Tiferet, this all-inclusive outlook, encompassed all types of worship.
Their perversion of Yisrael’s ability to synthesize allowed them to embrace idol-
worship; their error was in assigning such worship any meaning at all. Tiferet is
the inclusion of many different attributes in the service and worship of the One G-
d; idolatry is the inclusion of other “gods”, which are, in fact, non-entities. Time
and again throughout our history, this perversion of Tiferet has re-surfaced, and
the Books of the Prophets tell of many “movements” within Judaism which
attempted to “synthesize” worship of the Ba’al with Jewish worship. This motif
begins at the foot of Mount Sinai and continues through the Hellenistic period to
modern times.

The spiritual negativity created by Yishmael, Esav, and the Erav Rav is the power
of the “klipot” of our Forefathers’ teachings. Herein lie the sources for sexual
immorality, murder, and idolatry, which eventually caused the destruction of the
First Temple. When the Jews follow the counterfeited teachings of their Forefathers
instead of internalizing the true messages represented by the philosophical pillars
of our Nationhood, their mandate to lead by example comes to an end; the
Temple is destroyed, the Jewish Commonwealth laid to waste, and the Jewish
People scattered.

We may now understand Ya’akov’s fear; he thinks that perhaps he has


misunderstood the spiritual dynamics of the nascent Jewish Nation. Perhaps
among his children there is someone who is counterfeit. If this is the case,
perhaps it is not time for the Nation to be formed. Ya'akov’s sons respond by
saying "Shma"; they accept one G-d. There is, however, a deeper meaning behind
their choice of declaration. By saying the Shma they were actually referring to an
earlier episode in their father’s life, and trying to communicate something very
specific to Ya'akov.

According to the Midrash, during the entire period that Ya’akov thought Yosef was
dead, Ya'akov was devoid of clairvoyance; the Shchina left him. When Ya'akov
thought that Yosef was dead, he also thought that he had failed in his mission, for
it had earlier been revealed to him that if none of his sons died before him, he
would avoid hell (Rashi 37:35). With Yosef apparently dead, Ya'akov spends his
years awaiting his bitter fate in the World to Come. When the message arrives
that Yosef lives, the Torah comments:

"The spirit of Ya'akov their father lived" (45:27)


Rashi: The Sh`chinah which had left him returned (to Ya'akov)."

When Ya'akov and Yosef reunite after 22 years, the Torah describes their embrace:

"He (Yosef) saw him (Ya'akov), he fell on his neck, and he cried on his neck "
(46:29)
After 22 years, father and son are reunited. We understand why Yosef cried, but
what was Ya'akov doing?

"But Ya'akov did not fall on the neck of Yosef, and he didn’t kiss him. Our
sages explain that he (Ya'akov) was saying Shma" (Rashi 46:29)

Ya’akov’s response to seeing his long-lost son was the recitation of Shma. At first
glance this seems strange; he has not seen his son in all these years, and now, at
the moment of reunion, Ya’akov feels that it is time to say Shma! A closer look at
the words of Shma will explain Ya’akov’s response: Whereas a statement of faith
in One G-d, or even a statement of praise and thanks to the Almighty for reuniting
him with his beloved son, could have consisted of only the words “Hashem
Elokeinu Hashem Ehad”, Ya’akov added something more. When, years later, the
sons of Ya’akov respond to him on his deathbed with the words “Shma Yisrael—
Hear, O Israel,” it is clear that they are addressing their father. But why does
Ya’akov say “Shma Yisrael”? Can he be addressing himself, or are these words
superfluous? In fact, Ya’akov addresses Yisrael—not himself, but the entire
Knesset Yisrael, the totality of the Jewish People, who are at that moment
reunited. Upon seeing Yosef alive, Ya’akov knows that Knesset Yisrael is complete,
and recites the Shma. He realizes that his "bed is indeed complete", that the
Sh`chinah is once again with him, that the Nation of Israel may now emerge. With
this background, we understand why his children say Shma when, on his
deathbed, he loses the Sh`chinah again. They wish to assure him that they all
accept one G-d, that they are complete, and that he should not fear. They repeat
his own prayer, echoing his reference to a united Knesset Yisrael while at the
same time referring directly to their father.

However, there is another aspect of the recitation of Shma. The Michilta teaches:

"Israel say "Shma Yisrael Hashem Elokenu, Hashem Echad- Listen Yisrael,
G-d is Lord G-d is One"-and the 'Holy Spirit' (Ruach Hakodesh) cries out and
says from heaven "Who is like Your Nation Israel, a singular nation on earth"
(Chron. I 17:7, Michilta Bishalach section3)

Our saying of the Shma causes a response in heaven. Just as we accept G-d’s
Oneness in saying Shma, G-d declares our oneness, "One nation". The Talmud
entertains the possibility that G-d wears T`filin, as it were. The question is then
posed, what is the content of G-d’s T`filin, for surely it is not the Shma, as in
man’s T`filin.

"The Tifilin of the Master of the Universe, what is written in them?.. "Who is
like Your nation Israel, a singular nation on earth" [Chron. I 17:7] (Brachot
6a)

Just as the Jews are dedicated to G-d, G-d is dedicated to the Jewish People. The
response of Heaven to our Shma is the declaration of Nationhood. Ya'akov
understood this, and therefore he responds,
"Boruch Shem Kivod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed - Blessed be the honorable
Name of His Kingship forever and ever"

This declaration is said on Yom Kippur by the people, who hear the Divine Name
mentioned by the Kohen Gadol. The utterance of the ineffable name is in itself a
manifestation of the Sh`chinah; therefore the reaction of the assembled masses
was to prostrate themselves and declare "Boruch Shem Kivod Malchuto L’olam
Va’ed - Blessed be the Honorable Name of His Kingship forever and ever"

When the children of Ya'akov say Shma, the Heavens respond:

"Who is like Your Nation Israel, a singular nation on earth" (Chron. I 17:7)

Ya'akov then realizes that his children are complete, "one nation". He responds
and says praise for having seen the Sh`chinah, just as the entire Nation is to
respond to the Shchina in the future:

"Boruch Shem Kivod Malchuto L’olam Va’ed - Blessed be the Honorable


Name of His Kingship forever and ever".

According to the Midrash, the slavery could not commence until the Jews were a
unified, independent nation. Otherwise they stood the risk of assimilation (see
Tana Di be Eliyahu Rabba section 21). Now the book of B`reishit may come to its
end; the slavery and eventual Exodus will follow, and destiny will lead the Jews to
Mount Sinai. The Shma will remain the "pledge of allegiance" of this nation. Over
the generations, many will say Shma in all sorts of situations, and the Sh`chinah
will always take notice. Perhaps the most famous Shma of all also took place in a
death scene:

”When they (the Romans) took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed it was time
to say Shma…he prolonged the word “One” until his soul departed in
[saying] “One.” (Brachot 61b)

When the Romans tortured Rabbi Akiva, The Talmud notes it was "time to say
Shma"; it was time to uplift the Nation from the oppression of the Romans, it was
time to infuse the people with a sense of Nationhood. The Sh`chinah had been
exiled with the destruction of the Second Temple, and now the glimmer of hope of
rebuilding the Temple had been extinguished. Rabbi Akiva`s Shma echoes
throughout the generations; indeed, it was heard by Jews in countless situations,
and it gave them the strength to make some difficult decisions. It is fascinating
that the name "Akiva" is derived from the name Ya'akov; both were married to
women named Rachel, who in turn both excelled in self-sacrifice. The Shma of
Rabbi Akiva is certainly connected to the Shma of Ya'akov.1
1
See Yaarot Dvash, by Rav Yonatan Eibshitz,
‫ דרוש ב‬- ‫ספר יערות דבש חלק ראשון‬
‫ רק הואיל שהיה‬,‫ לבל ימותו פעם כפעם‬,‫ היה מגין על תלמידים כ"ד אלף‬,‫ובאמת זכות ר"ע שהוא נפש יעקב‬
,‫ ולכן השמרו נא מקנאה‬.‫ ולכך אף יעקב לא הגין עליהם‬,‫ וא"כ היה מול צוואת יעקב‬,'‫ ויעקב צוה הקבצו וכו‬,‫ביניהם פירוד‬
For some reason, G-d chose that the "End of Days" not be revealed by Ya'akov.
This was not an indication of unworthiness, either on the part of Ya'akov or his
children. Rather, it was an indication that some books must remain closed. Rabbi
Akiva was also involved in speculation about the End of Days. He tried to
orchestrate its speedy arrival. In the end, Rabbi Akiva failed in bringing the
Messiah, but this did not discourage him from saying the Shma loud and clear, so
that it was heard both in this world, and in heaven.

”When they (the Romans) took Rabbi Akiva out to be executed it was time
to say Shma…he prolonged the word “One” until his soul departed “in
[saying] One” a voice came from heaven and said, “Fortunate is Rabbi
Akiva whose soul departed in [saying] “One”…a voice came from heaven
and said, ‘fortunate is Rabbi Akiva, for you are invited to the World to
Come” (Brachot 61b)

Chazak c hazak, v’ ni tc haz ek !

‫ וביחוד מענין חתנים וכלות‬,‫ והשמרו מכל דבר רע‬,‫וראו להתדבק בתלמיד חכם‬: