Parshat Vayechi

Parshat Vayechi

By Abraham Havivi, January 3, 2015

Read Gen. 48:1-11 (Dying Jacob receives Joseph, along with grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim, and blesses them)

What’s the obvious question about Jacob’s question in v. 8, Mi eleh, Who are these? (How could he not recognize his own grandchildren? He had already been living in Egypt 17 years!)

Possible answers:

Dimming eyesight (v. 10) (this seems to be the p’shat—Radak, ibn Ezra, Hizkuni)

Modern source criticism: Different sources (P and E)

Midrash (Tanhuma, followed by Rashi): Jacob prophetically foresaw some wicked descendants of E and M (idolatrous kings of Israel) (“How can I bless them, given that these wicked kings will descend from them?!” Then Joseph brings him back to the present moment.)

Midrash, although sounding fanciful to us, actually is in keeping with the overall theme of the parsha and highlights it: CONTINUITY/LEGACY—Jacob’s concern about that will happen after him, will his values live on in his descendants—the possibility of idolatrous kings throws him temporarily

What other aspects of the parsha are concerned with continuity?

Jacob’s burial request

Jacob’s adoption of E and M as equal is status to Joseph’s brothers

Blessing of J, E, M—Jacob hands down the blessings of his ancestors, Avraham and Yitzchak

Jacob’s “blessings” to his 12 sons

Jacob’s burial in Cana’an

Brothers’ self- humbling and final reconciliation with Joseph after Jacob’s death (family could fracture, but it doesn’t)

Joseph’s burial request—takes my bones out of Egypt when God delivers you (Gen. 50:25 pakod yifkod,, echoed in Ex. 3:16, 4:21)

Haftara—King David’s concern to settle scores and reward allies

What is this concern with continuity about? Important to our ancestors that their family, their tradition, their values, would be carried forward; this is a drive familiar to us all–people naturally want to feel that their values are being passed on to their children

BTW, in parsha we see the best proof of values passed on to children–(First example in the Torah of) grandchildren

How is continuity manifested? I suggest two ways: One—that the offspring, the descendants, carry on the same traditions as the parents; Two—that the children use the family tradition as a foundation, but then move on and create something of their own; (A framework for looking at this—the path of Isaac vs. the path of Jacob—Isaac repeated and consolidated what Abraham did and didn’t innovate, while Jacob evolved and went in new directions). Two models: Do the children and grandchildren duplicate that which came before, or do they innovate?

Now, this is a question that certainly feels pertinent here at LM. It is clear to all of us who have been around for a while that the energy in the room is diminished, the hair is grayer, and the pews are emptier—and sometimes, it feels a little sad. Where are our children? Where are the young people, the younger families? (I know there are a few here—but far fewer than 20 years ago.)

The same question, of course, writ large, is the question of the Conservative movement, declining in numbers—the Pew report simply confirmed what we all feel and see around us.

But, I think the sadness is misplaced. It’s like when I visit my old neighborhood in Queens–Laurelton—once Jewishly vibrant–3 shuls, now none. You could say, as some do, that the neighborhood “died”—but of course, it didn’t die—the Jews moved on and others moved in. The adults of my growing up years were raised on the Lower East Side, or Brooklyn; they themselves moved into nice little private houses in Laurelton; their children moved to the suburbs: and their grandchildren now are moving to—the Lower East Side and Brooklyn!—where their grandparents or even great-grandparents lived! As the geography went, so the religious affiliations as well—an old generation davened in little shtiblach, a subsequent generation built magnificent suburban edifices, and a new generation now meets in living rooms and independent minyanim.

So, one possible response to the room emptying out—“We’ve failed”—is simply wrong. Perhaps our style of community and davening won’t appeal to enough of a critical mass within the next generation, perhaps it will.

I think the more correct analysis is: We’ve succeeded. Our children—and when I say “children” here, I don’t necessarily mean our specific biological children, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you have your own biological children, I’m talking about the next generation that we as a village raised together, and mentored—our community’s children may not be here, but they have taken other directions—they’ve made aliya; they go to indie minyans; they’re peaceniks who study Arabic, they’ve become Modern Orthodox; they define their Jewishness culturally, they’re committed to social justice—in all these ways, they don’t duplicate precisely what we created here—they’ve used it as a foundation, and moved on in new directions; (or, of course, the usual analysis—they’re not in shul at age 25, but let’s have another look at age 35 or 40, when they have children of their own and are more likely to re-affiliate—I mean, how many people here were in shul at age 25?)

Of course, that’s how this minyan was started, by a group of people who “rebelled” against the norms of their community—a community marked by synagogue decorum, responsive English readings, paid professional leadership, a bima like Mt. Sinai—the mainstream synagogue experience of the 50’s and 60’s that was perfectly satisfactory for lots of Jews until, one day, it wasn’t, and a next generation created something new, that many of the older generation disapproved of at the time, and we know that R. Pressman was very forward-thinking in backing the LM at a time when the lay powers-that-be felt threatened by it. Many of our “sister minyanim” in other cities were forced to move out of synagogues, because their existence was seen to threaten the rabbi—but R. Pressman was prescient and backed us.

We in this room were part of a movement that created new forms and styles that may have been unfamiliar to our parents or grandparents—little kids running around, anyone takes a turn at drashing–it wasn’t their cup of tea. Maybe that’s yet another interpretation of Jacob’s question, Mi Eleh, “Who are these?”—for surely M and E, born and raised in Egypt, in a family with mixed parentage, were different, as younger generations always are—they don’t know Yiddish, or they keep eco-kosher but not kosher, or their only religious practice is social justice work, or they’re “spiritual but not religious”, or they became Haredi, or they can only daven with a rock band.

Look, it feels nice for us when our children, or grandchildren, like the same things that we do. It’s nice that some of our adult children show up here. But coming to daven in the same room is not the only form of continuity. Sometimes the next generation moves out, moves away, and moves on, and creates something that may or may not be our cup of tea, but still is rooted in values of serving God, building community, perfecting the world, and loving Torah—whether or not that is the vocabulary being used. Hopefully, we can recognize that moving on does not mean abandonment, we can appreciate new directions that we did not create, and we can admire a younger generation for their passion to evolve Jewishly in paths they forge for themselves, even as we forge a path for ourselves.

Our parsha reminds us that one of the main goals of adult life is to pass on something of ourselves. This something may be received as is, or may be transformed in ways that may be hard to recognize—“Mi Eleh”, “Who are these?” We pass the baton to a next generation, and try to recognize graciously that the baton needs to be passed–or, as Ya’akov Avinu says, we pass on to our children and grandchildren the blessings that our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We bless our children with the words Jacob used to bless Joseph and his children: Hamal’akh hago’el oti mikol ra y’varech et han’arim, v’yikare bahem sh’mi v’shem avotai Avraham v’Yitzhak, v’yidgu larov b’kerev ha’aretz. May God’s angel, all of God’s messengers who protected and sustained us, bless our younger generation, our children and grandchildren, and may you carry on the name—the essence–of your forebears, and may you flourish in the world and live a life of fullness and abundance.