An Overview of Genesis : Vayechi – The Art of Coming Closer
In the Book of Genesis, from the beginning, with the fratricide of Cain and Abel to the end, with the unity of the sons of Joseph, Ephriam and Menashe, an overall Tshuva/repentance has taken place, but it is very incomplete.
At the end of the Book of Genesis, we do not sail off happily ever after into the horizon. We go down into slavery.
One view holds that slavery was not a consequence of anything we did – it was simply part of God’s plan, spelled out at the ‘Covenant of Between the Pieces’ (Genesis 15), which stipulates exile, slavery and suffering.
Another view is that, in Genesis, “nobody ever paid the piper”. Joseph didn’t pay for his sins against his brothers, and they didn’t pay for their sins against him. In this view, the slavery of the Jewish people is a consequence of this. The family of Abraham objectified each other and treated each other as slaves, and so their children were objectified and treated as slaves. One Midrash says that within the slavery of the Jewish people, there was no hierarchy – suffering proved to be the great equalizer. This continues throughout history – so that there is some resolution, but never full payment. It is not shalem/complete, and not shalem/paid for.
The Gemara (Hagigah 4a-b) tells the strange tale heard by R. Bibi b. Abaye,
“who was frequently visited by the Angel of death. [Once] the latter said to his messenger: Go, bring me Miriam, the hairdresser! He went and brought him Miriam, the children’s nurse. Said he to him: I told thee Miriam, the women’s hairdresser. He answered: If so, I will take her back. Said he to him: Since thou has brought her, let her be added. But how were you able to her get? – She was holding a shovel in her hand and was heating and raking the oven. She took it and put it on her foot and burnt herself, thus her luck was impaired and I brought her.
The name ‘Miriam the hairdresser/megaddela’ is often thought to refer to Mary Magdalene from the story of Jesus. In this text the messenger of the Angel of death confuses Mary Magdalene with Miriam, the sister of Moses. The question raised here is can someone die before their time? Can the Angel of death make a mistake? In this story, Moses’ sister Miriam is made vulnerable by burning her foot, and the Angel’s messenger is able to take her before her time.
Once a person is in a place of danger, he is judged individually, and only God’s kindness can bring salvation. This is the premise of Birkat Hagomel – the blessing we recite upon seeing a place where we once experienced a miracle that saved us from imminent danger. By the strict standard of din/Judgment, everyone deserves to die, so it is only a miracle - brought about by Hashem’s compassion - that can save us from a life-threatening situation.
By the strict standard of Justice, Joseph should have died in the pit, just as the Baker (who according to Ishbitz represents Joseph) later dies in Pharaoh’s prison, and Messiah, son of Joseph will die at the End of Days.
Another interesting aspect of the Messianic process is that Lot is a part of this process.
A key part of the whole Messianic process is in the idea of going down to go up. This is why before the Davidic Messiah, we are told we will experience painful ‘birth-pangs’ and Armageddon, a period of turmoil in which Messiah son of Joseph will die. In order to rise up, we must first go down into chaos.
The Zohar in Vayechi says: ‘R. Simeon said: Jacob’s life was always one of hardship, but whenever he looked at Joseph he thought he saw his mother again, because Joseph closely resembled Rachel, and at such a time he forgot all his sorrows. When, however, Joseph was parted from him, this was a worse blow than all the previous ones, and he wept every day for the seventeen years that Joseph had been with him. Hence Providence compensated him with another seventeen years of Joseph’s company, during which he lived in ease and luxury. Tradition tells us that all those seventeen years the Divine Presence rested upon him, and therefore they were called “life”. So it says that when his sons told him that Joseph was alive, “the spirit of Jacob their father revived” (Genesis 44:27), for up to then the spirit had been dead within him and he had not been in a state to receive another in its place, since the spirit from above does not rest on an empty spot.’
R. Jose said: ‘The Shechinah does not rest on a place which is defective or disturbed, but only in a place properly prepared, a place of joyfulness. Hence all the years that Joseph was away and Jacob was in sadness, the Shechinah did not rest on him.’
So we have learnt that R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Abba: ‘It is written, “Serve the Lord with gladness, come before his presence with singing”, to show that the service of God should be performed with joy.’ This accords with what R. Eleasar has elsewhere said, that when Elisha desired the spirit to rest upon him, he said “and now bring me a minstrel” (2 Kings 3:15).
The irony here is that the spirit of prophecy rested upon Jacob while he was in Egypt, where as normally, prophecy occurs only in Eretz Israel. In his ability to receive prophecy in Mitzrayim, Jacob reached the level of prophecy of Moses.
The irony extends to the issue of simcha/joy, and how it came to Jacob, enabling him to achieve a very high level of prophecy. In this section, The Zohar goes on to say that when R. Shimon bar Yochai died, “the fountains of the deep and the windows of heaven were closed”. This is also the case after the death of Jacob, when the children of Israel went down into slavery. The ‘closing of the eyes of Israel’ echoes the story of Tamar, who seduced Judah at Patach Enayim/the opening of the eyes.
There is a great teaching in this, about our need to embrace the dark places. This is the key to the whole process of going down to go up.
The goal is to achieve a life of gratitude and simcha/joy. If we look back to Parshat Yayigash – we see that Jacob said to Pharaoh (47:9) “My journey through life has lasted 130 years…The days of my life have been few and hard. I did not live as long as my fathers did during their pilgrimage through life.”
When seen in this light, we can see Jacob as the personification of this redemptive process of going down to go up. In his speech to Pharaoh, he is describing the internal process of every human being. In Parshat Vayechi, he moves from the embittered state described in his words to Pharaoh to a state of gratitude and joy.
In a larger context, this process operates throughout the entire Book of Genesis. Genesis represents the journey from bitter perceptions and comparisons, in which there is no comfort of solace, to a state of gratitude and joy. We see this process very clearly in Leah’s working through of her bitterness in her naming of her first four sons, and in Rachel’s working through of her bitterness about not being able to have children.
Embitterment is a sterile state.
In the beginning Cain compares himself to Abel. This leads to murder and a black cloud over the world. This is the starting point for the therapeutic process. The Book of Genesis shows us that by embracing the ‘Tree of Death’, or negativity, redemption can grow out of this very blackness. This dynamic process is contrasted by the state symbolized by Vayeshev Yaakov b’aretz megurei aviv/And Jacob settled in the land where his fathers had trembled (Genesis 37:1).
In Parshat Vayigash, Jacob compares his lot to that of his fathers, and is jealous over the wealth and tranquillity enjoyed by them. He feels that by comparison, his life has been nothing but hardship and trouble.
The truth is, however, that hardship and trouble are often simply avoided in the Book of Genesis. Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac was spared because Jacob was forced into exile and Esau was rejected by Rebecca. Dinah and her daughter Osnat are sent away. Joseph is sent away. As long as this family is ejecting people, it is not working through its issues. The family needs to learn to counter the natural tendency to entropy that is present in all relationships.
Through this entropy, two people come to reflect each other’s darkness. Through transference, people turn into each other’s worst nightmare.
This is a great example of where our strengths become our obstacles, and our weaknesses become our opportunities.
The darkest places of any two people will always meet up once they are in a relationship, because our darkest places are where we were hurt as children. As people come close to each other, as some point they will experience the other in the same way they were hurt as a child. As soon as we do a reality check, we see that our assumptions take us to a place of hurt feelings. The closer two people become to each other, the more this will happen.
The Torah suggests that the antidote to this entropic process is to learn not to become reactive. This is the meaning of the Mishna in Avot (4:1) ‘Who is mighty? He who conquers his yetzer/passions.’ Our task is to conquer our reactivity to the world.
In Parshat Vayechi/’And he lived’, Jacob comes alive. Until now, he has been buffeted by the winds of fortune, and he is embittered by all misfortune he has encountered. Before, he was stuck in the world of denial – the world of Vayeshev. He wanted to dwell in serenity in the place where his fathers trembled. Here, when he is blessing Joseph, he speaks of (48:15) “The God before whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked…”
Here, the Torah picks up a theme that runs throughout the Book of Genesis – the ability to walk in front of God, into the dark places, without looking for a way out or a way to avoid.
The central paradox of Vayechi is in how by going into Egypt – eretz Mitzrayim – the place of narrowness and specifically to Goshen – the land of materiality, Jacob’s awareness of God becomes great. This finding God in the darkness is Abraham’s great innovation.
This ‘walking into darkness to find God’ takes a lot of hard work over a long period of time, and it can only be achieved by taking small, incremental steps.
The sons of Jacob did not, however, repeat the process that Abraham pioneered. Abraham went down into Egypt and became heavy with money, which resulted in him realizing that he wanted to live in the desert, and not in the fleshpots of Egypt. Now, however; ‘The fledgling nation of Israel settled in Mitzrayim, in the Goshen district. They were grabbed by the land (Veye/azi ba), and were fertile, with their population increasing very rapidly.’ (Genesis 47:27 )
Mizrayim is a place of fear and desire – fear because it is very oppressive, and desire because it is so materially seductive. The land literally grabbed them and held onto them, so that they couldn’t go back after five years, as Abraham had done.
Abraham’s movement from Egypt into the desert is part of the Messianic process.
The other theme picked up here in Parshat Vayechi is that of the Messianic process and the role in this process of Lot, who represents Everyman. When Lot went down to Egypt, he experienced it as “God’s own garden” (Genesis 13:10). Like Abraham, Lot also went down to Egypt and became rich, but as a result of this, he wanted to stay there. He believed he could hold onto Abraham’s values while living in a place like Egypt – and in this, he is Everyman, and he is the Jewish people, who believed they could stay in Egypt and hold onto Jacob’s values. For Lot/Everyman, Egypt is Paradise.
It’s clear why the children of Israel didn’t go back. They were given land, and then they bought more land, and this is how the land grabbed them. Meanwhile, the Egyptians were stripped of everything they owned. (Genesis 47:15-22)
From this discrepancy, we can feel the darkness descend. The Jews own land and the Egyptians own none, and here, just as in the story of Cain and Abel, the jealousy is brewing.
It is this – fear, desire and reactivity - that closes the eyes of Israel.
One of the great moments in the Book of Genesis is how, when Joseph and Judah finally come together, Joseph (the tzaddik/righteous one) becomes the Baal Tshuva/penitent, and Judah (the baal tshuva) becomes the tzaddik. Joseph breaks down and cries, while Judah speaks with the force of a tzaddik/righteous man. Each contributes and benefits from the experience of coming closer to the other.
Just as Miriam - in the passage from the Gemara cited at the beginning of this chapter - was taken by the Angel of death when she burnt her foot, so any one person standing alone becomes vulnerable, and loses the aura of divine protection.
This introduces a third and related theme of the Book of Genesis – that of reciprocity. In a relationship, where each person’s talents and faults match up with those of the other, we achieve a certain reciprocity, and with this we can work together to build a community.
Our darkest places are also our greatest opportunity for tshuva. These places are the fulcrum of our lives, but we can only uncover them in a close relationship with another person, through the diagnostic feedback of our hurt feelings. It is through this reciprocity that Joseph becomes the penitent, and Judah the tzaddik. They are able to find their greatest strength in their weakest places, and to understand that our strongest places are the most vulnerable, because it is here that we are in danger of complacency.
Joseph could have responded to this situation by refusing to come close to Judah. He had been separated from his family for many years, he had a good life in Egypt, and he could have simply chosen to move on, and not acknowledge the family that had abandoned him and sold him into slavery.
The messianic process, however, requires the incredible tenacity demonstrated by Joseph. It requires us to hang in there, and keep talking, because this is the only way we will eventually come together. Another, related part of the process is in giving people room to change. If we rigidly lock others into a specific role, everyone becomes stuck.
The family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob doesn’t solve all of its problems in the Book of Genesis, but it does move a little. They come together, and they stay together. They reconcile, albeit not in an ideal way, but they are still talking. The natural condition of all systems and relationships is entropy, with everything moving away from everything else, and the only way we can counter this is to keep talking, especially in the dark times. This is true also of our relationship with Hashem.
The process is characterized by a series of constant ups and downs. A good example of this is the electro-cardiogram, where if the person is dead, the line is flat, while life is represented by a series of constant ups and downs. Not only do we need to take small steps, but we need to appreciate that the process is one of three steps forward, two steps back.
The messianic process is made up of our attempts to see God, and to be seen by God. This requires depth of vision, as we learn in the Gemara (Hagigah 2a):
Yohanan b. Dahabai said in the name of R. Judah: A man who is blind in one eye is exempt from appearing at the Temple, as it is said, Yir’eh [He will see], Year’eh [He will be seen]. As He comes to see, so He comes to be seen: just as [He comes] to see with both eyes, so also to be seen with both eyes.
This is a very interesting, and very crucial Torah. The difference between one-eyed sight and two-eyed sight is one of perspective and depth.
The Ben Ish Chai explains that “both eyes” means the ability to see God simultaneously as both Chessed/Loving-kindness and Gevurah/Strict Judgement. The Four Letter Name of God incorporates both these attributes.
When Jacob came to Egypt and was reunited with Joseph after seventeen years of separation, his eyes were opened – he was able to see God with both eyes – God as Loving-kindness and God as Judge. This is the meaning of V’yechi Yaakov – And Jacob lived. In Egypt, the darkest place in the world, Jacob finally overcame his reactivity. He found true simcha/joy, and not just the denial of Vayeshev. When he died, his children could come together and recite Shema – the ultimate affirmation of the One-ness of God.