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Vayachi 5783           January 7, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Any time we see a parsha about living, we know that this parsha is really about dying. Vayachi means, “And he lived” referring to Jacob, so we know that this will be the Parsha where he will die. Even in ancient times, people did not want to talk about death. To a certain extent, this makes sense. The reality is that the death does not matter anywhere near as much as the life that a person lives.

Jacob, as he is dying, gathers his 12 sons around him and gives each of them a blessing before he dies. Each son gets a blessing based on his personality and his history in the family. Shimon and Levi are condemned for their harsh attack on Shechem. Judah is praised as a leader. But there is a strange interruption between the blessing for Dan and Gad. Suddenly Jacob says: “I wait for your salvation YHVH.”  Nobody is really sure why there is this sudden plea for God’s salvation.

Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, in the D’var Torah from Yeshivat Hadar gives this explanation, The context of this interjection is one in which Ya’akov thought he had seen the end of suffering, and the new world emerging. Alas, he was wrong, and he blurts out: “I am still waiting for Your salvation, God.”  There is a tinge of frustration and disappointment in Ya’akov’s words.” Rabbi Kaunfer considers that perhaps Jacob expects that the time had come for the Messianic Age and there would be peace in the world. He suddenly realizes that this is not going to happen, so he notes that he is still waiting for God’s salvation of the world.

Usually, we think of prayer as a way we can express our praise of God or our thankfulness to God. But there are also prayers of frustration; prayers to God about our feelings when things don’t turn out as we hoped (and prayed) that they might turn out. In the case of Jacob/Yaakov, our patriarch thought that perhaps through a descendant of one of his sons, that person might be the Messiah that would redeem the world. Yaakov now realizes that there will be no one person who can bring redemption; only God can provide the salvation that Yaakov seeks.

It is interesting to read the rabbis of the Talmud and their discussions about the Messiah, the king that will rule the world with justice and peace. We Jews have been waiting for such a person a long time and one of the lessons we have learned over the centuries is that there will be no one person who will bring peace to the world for all time. That if peace is to come, each one of us has the responsibility to bring justice and reconciliation to the world. Perhaps over time, the peace that we seek will become a reality.

My friend Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein in his D’var Torah this week, notes a different anomaly in the text. He writes this week, Parshat Vayehi, almost in its entirety, deals with Yaakov’s death. When his time comes, after he has finished blessing his sons, the progenitors of the tribes, the Torah uses these words to describe his final moments: ‘And Yaakov finished charging his sons, he gathered his feet up into his bed, and breathed his last breath (vayigva), and was gathered to his kinfolk.’

Rabbi Silverstein quotes the Sages noting that the text does not use the word, “vayamot” “and he died.” Yaakov just laid down on his bed and breathed his last breath. But it never says that Yaakov died. There are two cases in the Bible of people who don’t die, Enosh in Genesis, and Elijah the prophet in the Book of Kings. All kinds of stories are told about them because they were taken to God but never died. Are we supposed to say the same thing about Yaakov? He was here one minute and was gone the next? Rabbi Silverstein explains what happened this way, “How is it that Yaakov continues to live? It is in the perpetuation of the message of his life through his progeny. This is an important lesson for all of us who have "progeny," whether they be those whom we teach, guide, and inspire, or whether they be our children, or our grandchildren. Our lives are intertwined with theirs.”

This is an explanation that we can relate to. This is not some hope for the future nor a claim for eternal life; it is exactly what we might expect at the death of a patriarch of any family. He may have died, but he still lives on. We can all live on through the students that we teach, the people that we mentor, and through our family. If we have done a good job of teaching them the lessons we have learned in life, then indeed our life lives on in the lives of those we leave behind.

Last year, Rabbi Elayna Zaiman spoke to us, on Zoom, about her book, “The Forever Letter.” In this book, she explains how we can best leave a living lesson for our family and friends by writing what she calls “a forever letter” but others call it an “Ethical Will. While it is vitally important to write a formal “last will and testament” to make sure that our possessions are transferred to those we indicate in the will. This will is only read one time; the items and funds are distributed according to our last instructions and then it is forgotten.

An Ethical will is different. It is not about what we possess, it is about the lessons we have learned from our own ancestors, teachers, and mentors, but also the lessons we learned in the “School of Hard Knocks,” the stuff we learned the hard way through trial and error and through each and every mistake we ever made. It is a letter to the next generation about how they can learn from our mistakes, without the need to repeat them, and thus can use their time on this planet to do more good than we were able to do in our lives. It can also speak to our hopes and dreams about what those who receive the letter might be capable of if they take the time to try. A forever letter, and ethical will can also, like Yaakov, speak about what blessings we wish to leave behind us after we are gone.

This is a letter, a will, that can be read over and over. It can inspire those we love long after we are gone; to remind the next generation that they have not been left a “blank slate” but rather instructions about how they can live their lives better. On the dark days that might inevitably come to them in the future, The letter can be taken out, read again and it can bring light to that darkness. When our yahrzeit comes around, they can read this letter and remember who we are and what we stood for.

The Talmud tells a story of two rabbis who spend the day together and are ready to go their own ways. Rav Nahman said to Rav Yitzcak: 'Pray Master, bless me.' Rabbi Yitzhak said to him: ‘Let me tell you a parable — To what may this be compared? To a man who was journeying in the desert; and he was hungry, weary, and thirsty, so he happened upon a tree whose fruit was sweet and its shade pleasant, and a stream of water flowing beneath it; he ate of its fruits, drank of the water, and rested under its shade. When he was about to continue his journey, he said: Tree, O Tree, with what shall I bless you? If I say to you, ‘May thy fruits be sweet’? They are sweet already; that your shade be pleasant? It is already pleasant; that a stream of water may flow beneath you? Behold, a stream of water flows already beneath you; therefore [I will say], ‘May it be [God's] will that all the shoots taken from you be like unto you. So, too, with you. With what shall I bless you? With [the knowledge of the Torah?] You already possess [knowledge of the Torah]. With riches? You already have riches. With children? You already have children. Hence [I say], ‘May it be [God's] will that your offspring be like unto you.’ (adapted from Taanit 5b-6a)

Yaakov never died because he left his legacy to his children. We can call this parsha, “Vayachi” “and he lived” because it is not about his death at all. It is about the legacy he left behind that inspired his children and kept his approach to life alive.

Talking about death is not something we should fear. It is something that we need to address to those who will live after us so that our wishes for a funeral, burial, and the disposition of our possessions will be clear. Everyone will know what they need to do and what will happen after we are gone. But we should also not be afraid to leave our students, those we mentor, our children and grandchildren, the essence of what our life in this world was all about. What values did we live by? What lessons did we learn that we wish to pass on? What part of us must live on even after we are gone?

It is said that Yaakov never died, his legacy to his children was different from the legacy that was left by his parents and grandparents. The past generations of patriarchs and matriarchs left behind a divided family. The two sons of Abraham went their separate ways and only Yitzchak kept alive his father’s faith in God. Yitzchak had two sons, Yaakov and Esau. After his death, the two sons went their separate ways and only Yaakov kept alive his father’s faith in God.

Yaakov is different. All of his sons were loyal to God. The rabbis noted that when Yaakov was worried that his boys might go their own separate ways, the boys all stood at his bedside and using their father’s other name, Israel, said to him in one voice, “Listen Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  The Torah will not record that line for another four books of the Torah. Only in Devarim will we hear these words from Moses. But the Sages record them as an assurance that the lessons of Yaakov’s life will not be forgotten. In this manner, Yaakov never died.

Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem wrote this week, You do not have to be a great writer or scholar to write an ethical will, just sit down in a quiet place, take out a good old-fashioned pen and paper and write a few lines. This could be the greatest gift you ever give your children or if you don’t have children other relatives, friends, or who knows, maybe even people thousands of years from now will be reading your words like we are reading about the patriarchs in Parashat Vayechi.

May God bless us with lives that are full of wisdom and joy, and may we take the time and find the words to bless those love with the keys to a life of wisdom and joy as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784