Drash on Parashat Vayechi
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria
I’m writing this drash a few weeks in advance of Vayechi. This year Vayechi falls on 2 January 2021, so at this moment I’m still looking forward to the end of 2020. It’s been a trying year in so many ways and for so many people around the globe, including us here in the Asian Pacific region. The anticipation of the new year is filled with both relief and hope; relief that we’ve somehow got through the terrible events of the past year, and hope that the new year will bring us the fulfilment, wholeness and peace that we may have felt eluded us in 2020.
Our portion Vayechi is also about conclusions. It marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis which has occupied our religious lives since Simchat Torah. It tells the story of Jacob’s final days, the blessings he gives to his children, his death and his interment in Canaan. The portion itself concludes portentously, with the death of Joseph whom a future Pharaoh “will not know” and the isolation of the immigrant children of Israel in Goshen in Egypt.
The first blessing Jacob gives to his offspring skips a generation. It goes to his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob is very keen to pass his spiritual inheritance to them both. Jacob says, though Ephraim and Manasseh were born before Jacob’s entry into Egypt, nonetheless they will be like sons to him; he even compares them to Reuben and Simeon, his oldest children.
How strange, then, that when Jacob (also called Israel) sees Joseph’s sons standing with him (as indicated by Gen 48:2) – presumably they were present the whole time Jacob was speaking – he asks, Mi eleh, Who are these [boys]? Jacob is keen to bring Ephraim and Manasseh into the covenant, yet he doesn’t recognise them at this crucial juncture.
A couple of verses later the Torah tells us that Jacob’s eyes were dim with age(literally “heavy from age”). This expression can be understood literally and figuratively. Perhaps he asked about the identity of his grandsons because he failed to see them standing there; they were a blur to him. That’s a literal understanding. But we recall that Moses, at the very end of his life, is described in this way: “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmedand his vigour unabated” (Deut. 34:7). The contrast between Jacob and Moses is striking. Jacob is worn out, his hard life has drained him of vision. Moses remained strong in his vision even after confronting Pharaoh and coping with the complaints of the Israelites for 40 years!
Perhaps, then, in a figurative sense Jacob asked after his grandsons because his vision was clouded, that is, his inner focus was blurred. He was no longer able to harness his passion as he had been in his younger years. We remember that, when Jacob lived in Laban’s house, he worked steadfastly for an additional seven years in order to win his beloved Rachel’s hand in marriage. Now, that’s passion! If we’ve forgotten that Jacob once had such passion, Jacob himself reminds us in our very Torah passage (Gen 48:7) by referring to Rachel’s death on the road to Ephrat. (The translators try to make sense of this wayward reference to Rachel, but the Hebrew is unfocused and vague.) The unexpected and slightly unnerving mention of Rachel in this speech is the product of unspoken associations; they resemble the meanderings of an elderly person’s mind when their “eyes are dim”. Jacob shifts from the present, where the young men Ephraim and Manasseh are, to the past; he lives in his memories.
It may be, then, that Jacob simply cannot identify his grandsons because his eyesight is poor; or, alternatively, he sees them clearly enough, but he can’t recall what his motive was in having them there. But there is another interpretation of Jacob’s dimmed vision, which is referred to in the Masorti chumash Etz Chayim. The editor comments, “Or did he fail to recognise Ephraim and Manasseh because, having been born and raised in Egypt, they were indistinguishable from Egyptian youths?” This is a remarkable understanding of our text. It suggests in part that the generation gap between Jacob and his grandsons is too great. He simply can’t see their life through his eyes, grasp their values or intuit their cultural biases. But it’s also a reflection of the age-old Jewish concern not to “imitate the nations” too closely, for fear of losing our cultural distinctiveness. The more Ephraim and Manasseh act like Egyptian youth, the more they assimilate to Egyptian culture and mores, the less visibly they appear as Jews and the less likely they are to have “Jewish grandchildren” in their turn.
But this ethnic and cultural impasse doesn’t end with a stand-off. The Masorti commentary goes on to tell us: “Tradition has it that they reassured him by reciting the Sh’ma– “Hear, O Israel” [“Israel” is Jacob (by his other name)] – we may look like Egyptians but we affirm the same God as our father and grandfather.” In other words, as long as the grandsons remain faithful to their heritage as Jews, that faithfulness will always be a part of them. They may dress like those around them or have similar likes and dislikes to those around them, but their commitment to the Jewish people and (significantly) to the Jewish idea of the Uniquely One God will always define them.
We Jews have been caught up in the same arguments for generations, but they are stronger today because we live in an egalitarian, open and ethnically fluid society as rarely if ever seen before in human history, with huge opportunities for cultural intermixing and creativity. By dint of our living in Australia, New Zealand and the diverse societies of Asia, we have made clear our own cultural choices. We still recite the Sh’ma, but for most of us, I believe, our affirmation is blunted by uncertainty, our understanding more clouded. Perhaps Ephraim and Manasseh’s Egyptian upbringing has clouded their eyes, too; maybe even given them false ideals. Are they kidding themselves? Have a read through the prophetic section of the Bible to find out.
The past year 2020 has accentuated the dimness of our vision. Any plans we had in February were completely overturned by March. We pray that 2021 may be a calmer year, one in which it is easier to exercise our vision.