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    End of days – Vayyechi

    December 16th, 2018

    Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed (Figures de la Bible, 1728)

    “Jacob called to his children and said, ‘Assemble together as I tell you what will befall you at the end of days; Gather together and listen, Children of Jacob: listen to Israel your father’” (Gen. 49:1-2).

    The Targum Onkelos replaces the second “listen” by “accept instruction”.

    What instruction did Jacob have in mind?

    Understanding “end of days” in the usual sense, he intended to reveal how history would reach its end-point and what would happen then. But, say the rabbinic interpreters as quoted by Rashi, God intervened and prevented him from prophesying.

    The fear must have been that knowing the future might not be a blessing for the family.

    If their destiny was going to be unpleasant, they might have abandoned hope and faith and succumbed to despair; if it was going to be good, they might allow themselves all sorts of indulgences and transgressions, knowing that the future would protect them and the end result would be unaffected.

    Some scholars attach a less exciting meaning to “end of days”, simply explaining it as “in time to come”.

    Martin Buber said that “end of days” could have two meanings – the Messianic culmination of history, and the eschatological mystery of the future.

    Buber says the Messianic meaning is not what Jacob had in mind, but the second, but that is a subject which human beings are neither allowed nor able to speak of.

    There are matters which are beyond our understanding, especially the nature of God. We cannot fully comprehend the mystique of God; we can only apprehend His Presence. Or, as some phrase it, we cannot fully express God; we can only address Him.


    Under the same umbrella – Vayyechi

    December 16th, 2018

    Jacob’s death-bed assembly of his children was cross-generational, according to Rashbam’s commentary. The patriarch summoned not only his children but his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

    The Midrash points out that no-one was left out, and Jacob called upon them all to assemble and gather together, not as separate individuals who were riven by divisions and conflicts, but as one family bound up with each other.

    They all had their own personalities, their own ideas and ideals, their own tribal leadership and institutions, but they were all part of one overarching family and had to act correspondingly.

    A British chief rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie of blessed memory, used to speak of the Jewish people being together under the same broad umbrella. Each group had its subculture of customs and opinions but all felt bound up with one another and should never allow themselves to descend into intergroup warfare or mutual condemnation.

    The High Holyday prayer book tells God that in the last analysis we are agudah achat la’asot retzon’cha b’levav shalem, “one band committed to fulfilling the Divine Will with a united heart”.


    Adam & Ish – Ask the Rabbi

    December 16th, 2018

    Q. At a house of mourning I saw that Psalm 49 was read after the regular prayers and noticed that the psalm makes a distinction between b’nei adam and b’nei ish. I thought that adam and ish were interchangeable words for “man”. Is the psalm saying something different?

    A. There are several Biblical words for “man”.

    In Psalm 49 the contrast between b’nei adam and b’nei ish is probably contrasting “low-status man” and “high-status man”.

    The same psalm makes another distinction between ashir, the rich, and evyon, the poor.

    One of the High Holyday liturgical hymns contrasts Melech Elyon, the high king (i.e. God) and melech evyon, the poor or lowly king (i.e. the human being).


    Is my father alive? – Vayyiggash

    December 9th, 2018

    At last the riddle unfolds.

    Joseph’s brothers have been immensely puzzled by the way they were treated by the Egyptian Minister of Food, in whom they did not recognise their own long-lost brother Joseph.

    Now, in this week’s Torah portion, Joseph reveals himself: “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen.45:3).

    The brothers are struck dumb, though Rashi explains, “They were not able to answer him because they were overwhelmed with shame”.

    What is not easy to work out is why Joseph asks after his father.

    From the emotional point of view, he has wondered for years about the fate of the father he loves. But surely he has deduced that Jacob was indeed alive, since one of the brothers, Judah, had already said quite clearly, Yesh lanu av zaken – “We have an aged father” (Gen. 44:20). And Joseph had actually asked at that earlier stage, “How is the aged father of whom you have spoken?” (Gen. 43:27).

    The explanation is implicit in what Rashi says. Joseph was not unaware that Jacob was alive, though by now the patriarch must be showing signs of old age, but he wants to know how the father has coped throughout all these years with the burden of callous children and the sudden disappearance of a loved young son.

    Basically, Joseph is uttering a rebuke. What he is saying is, “Have you no shame about what you did to our father? I myself have got through the hard years, but did you ever think of what your behaviour must have done to our father?”


    Jacob blessed Pharaoh – Vayyiggash

    December 9th, 2018

    Jacob blesses Pharaoh, by Owen Jones, 1869

    When Jacob and the family migrate to Egypt, the patriarch is taken to the king by Joseph to be presented and introduced to the ruler (Gen. 47).

    Jacob and Pharaoh have a conversation but then a strange thing happens. Instead of the king blessing Jacob, Jacob blesses the king.

    Presumably etiquette would demand that the man of higher status blesses and welcomes the man of lower status, but here the opposite takes place.

    Maybe the answer lies in the word vayevarech, “and he blessed” (Gen. 47:7). It might be improper and disrespectful for us to compare the Egyptian ruler to God, even though ancient kings did have divine pretensions.

    But when we Jews say a b’rachah to God and use the words, “Blessed are You”, it is possible that we are acknowledging that God is not the recipient but the source of blessing. All the good things we enjoy come from a generous, beneficent God.

    In that sense it could be that what Jacob is doing in the royal court is to formally acknowledge that all boons in Egypt come (sometimes indirectly) from Pharaoh.

    The Hebrew father is saying, “Thank you, Your Majesty, for the way you have received me and my family. We are grateful and intend to be worthy of your welcome.”