Vayechi 5777 - 2017 - When things go south, Attend to what's important.

Post date: Jan 19, 2017 6:28:51 PM

The name of this week’s parsha – vayechi – means “and he lived.” This parsha describes the end of the life of Jacob. He asks to be buried, not in Egypt, but rather with his forefathers in his homeland of Cana’an. Jacob’s final wishes are honored by Joseph, who transports his father’s body to the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah were also buried. While Jacob speaks to all of his sons during his final days, only Joseph leaves to carry out the burial. When he returns, his brothers greet him with fear.

They give Joseph a message, supposedly from their father before he died, that all of Joseph’s brothers are to be forgiven for their sins and evil-doings. In truth, they are likely terrified that, with the patriarch of their family gone, Joseph will exact revenge on the brothers that treated him with such contempt earlier in their lives. Upon hearing their message, Joseph begins to cry.

At this point, the Torah has a fascinating moment of foreshadowing. Beresheet 50:18 reads va’yip’loo lifanav; va’yomru heenenu lach la’avadim – and they fell before his face; and they said, “Here we are for you, as servants.” The irony here, of course, is that the descendants of these men will be just that – servants to the court of Pharaoh.

Joseph responds, not with anger or resentment, but rather with forgiveness. He asks ki ha’tachat elohim ani? Am I to stand in for God? He continues, saying that his brothers may have acted viciously toward him, but God intends l’cha’chayot am-rav – a numerous people to remain living. Again, a foretelling – the Egyptians will soon attempt a genocide of the Israelites, and seek to wipe out their living nation by murdering all male infants.

The vast majority of the final chapter of Beresheet seems to ironically foreshadow the events of the early chapters of Shemot, which we begin to read next week. Joseph indicates that God wishes for a numerous and vibrant Israelite community, and turns away from revenge and violence. How do we understand this benevolent picture of God against the terrible acts that are about to befall the Israelites in Egypt? More relevantly, how do we understand such a God in the face of the terrible acts we witness in our world every day?

I believe the answer lies in p’sukim 24-25 of Beresheet chapter 50. Here, Joseph is aging and about to die. As he does so, he says to his brothers, “I die; but God will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which God swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” In the next passuk, Joseph reiterates that God will remember the children of Israel, and asks that his body be taken when the Israelites are ready to leave Egypt.

The word for “remember” here is not the familiar “zachor,” but rather the root “pey-koof-dalet.” This root can mean “remember,” though an alternate meaning suggested is “to attend.” When terrible things are happening around us, it can be easy to shrink back into ourselves in fear or sadness. This is not how we can bring back God’s presence to our lives. We must attend to that which is going on around us, as awful or painful as it may be. This is the true meaning of the name of the parsha – vayechi – and he lived. To live means to seek and practice benevolence, as does Joseph toward his brothers. It also means to attend – to look around and be aware of and engaged with all that is happening in our midst. It is certainly not always enjoyable, but awareness and attention are what bring about change. This is the message Joseph gives his brothers – terrible things may occur, but you must attend. Only then will God take notice.

-Yvonne Asher