Vayechi — December 18, 2021
By Rabbinic Resident David Kaplinsky
I spent this past week working my way through final exams for my third semester of rabbinical school. The week was filled with a lot of procrastination; a good deal of stress and angst; little victories; very belated, but fascinating reading; and finally just yesterday afternoon a sense of relief and freedom. That was until I remembered that I had agreed to deliver a Dvar Torah for The Library Minyan. I kid only a little. But in the process of examining my week in the context of parshat Veyechi, I realized how its collision with the end of the year and many of our travels home is so apt.
In this Parsha, as we’ve just read, Yaakov is near death, making Yosef promise he will bury him in Canaan. He then wraps up loose ends, elevating the future status of the Ephraim and Menasheh as tribes and blessing them, followed by each of his sons. Within this narrative there is an apparently extraneous mention by Yaakov of how he was forced to bury Rachel by the side of the road in Bet-Lehem.
וַאֲנִ֣י ׀ בְּבֹאִ֣י מִפַּדָּ֗ן מֵ֩תָה֩ עָלַ֨י רָחֵ֜ל בְּאֶ֤רֶץ כְּנַ֙עַן֙ בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ בְּע֥וֹד כִּבְרַת־אֶ֖רֶץ לָבֹ֣א אֶפְרָ֑תָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶ֤הָ שָּׁם֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔ת הִ֖וא בֵּ֥ית לָֽחֶם
“As for me, when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath”—now Bethlehem.”
Following after his designation of Ephraim and Menasheh as “his own,” the question arises: what is the connection between his designation of his grandchildren and his retelling the story of burying Yosef’s mother? The JPS translation used by the Etz Hayim humash packs a lot into the connective vav in va’ani, rendering it in brackets “I [do this because] etc.” This makes the verse a continuation of the previous discussion, and not a completely random statement. Though how exactly Rachel’s death on the side of the road is an explanation for elevating Ephraim and Menasheh to tribal entities is unclear. However, many of the major medieval commentators, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam, all see something slightly different in Yaakov’s sudden recalling of this tragic moment in his life. Ibn Ezra sums it up well. He says:
ואני בבואי מפדן. שמתה רחל פתאום ולא יכולתי להוליכה לקברה במערה כאשר קברתי לאה. ואמר זה ליוסף שלא יחר לך שאבקש מאתך מה שלא עשיתי לכבוד אמך
Rachel died suddenly and I was not able to transport her to the cave of Machpelah and inter her there, as I did with Leah. Jacob told this to Joseph so that he would not be angry with him for requesting that he do for him what he didn’t do for the honor of his mother.
Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, Yaakov’s reason in mentioning this was in order to broach the difficult subject of his burying Rachel on the side of the road before his death, since he had just previously asked to be buried in the family tomb himself. After forcing Yosef to swear he will bury him at Machpelah and designating his two sons as future inheritors, he realizes “the elephant in the room” that he will either address now, or die without having ever broached the issue with his son.
What Yaakov was looking for and hoped to grant Yosef was closure. Yes, they had been truly blessed to reunite and for Yaakov to see not only his son but live to see his grandchildren, but in order for Yaakov to be able to let go of this life fully, he had to confront a wound that was still open.
During these winter holidays, many of us will return to our homes and our families, we have an opportunity not just to bask in the comfort and joy that home can bring, but to tie up loose ends in our lives.
We need not be on our death beds like Yaakov to seek closure with or apologize to our family members for past behavior. This does not have to only come in the form of healing real wounds, which often can be difficult though important to broach, but it can also be in sharing words of love and appreciation that you have often felt but not articulated to them. This may not be possible for every person in your family, but where it is, seize it. Going through life holding on to grudges and anger, or holding back from expressing the love you feel keeps you from real freedom. Yaakov knew that. May we all find our own way to closure with our families and friends. Shabbat shalom.