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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Parshat Vayechi

Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 14th Tevet 5776, 26th December 2015

Yaacov has had a rough life, and, as he told Pharaoh last week, my years聽are fewer and worse than those of my fathers. (That observation must聽have taken Pharaoh by surprise: all he asked was how old Yaacov was聽and here the old man goes and gives him a concise and depressing聽synopsis of a life of strife and loss.) Today, all of Yaacov’s children are聽gathered around his bedside as the patriarch 鈥 father and grandfather and聽great-grandfather 鈥 utters his final blessing before passing into what he聽expects will be a much quieter world.

Will he reveal their future? That seemed to be his intention, as he says,聽come listen and I will tell you what will happen to you in the end of the聽days. Yet the next sentence, which begins as a poetic repetition, ends聽lamely: gather and listen to your father. No mention of the future.

Rashi, citing the rabbis and the midrash, says that at the moment that聽Yaacov wanted to reveal the future, his prophetic powers failed him and聽he had to resort to comments about what they had done and what they聽were like. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says that this is an indication that聽prophesy in Judaism is not about telling the future but rather indicating聽what bad things will happen if steps are not taken to change, because the聽future is not preordained as the Greeks believed.

A look at what Yaacov says about the character of his children reveals the聽patriarch’s feelings both about his children and about how to harness their聽combined powers for a future nation.

If we glance back at the stories of Bereshit, we see that the choice of聽which child/children to favor became more difficult in each generation.聽Avraham didn’t have much choice: it was Yitzhak or it was the son of his聽concubine, who had been banished.聽Yitzhak also had only two, twins, but the choice between them was more聽difficult because each parent favored a different child. In the end, Rivka’s聽choice of Yaacov prevailed, in part, we learn from the midrash, because聽Yaacov donned the garb of his brother Esau. In other words, he adopted聽some of the traits that were necessary for his survival as the progenitor of聽the faith.聽In Yaacov’s case, the choice is much more complex. He doesn’t live in聽Mea Shearim but he has a dozen boys and the question of who will be the聽leader of the pack is difficult.

A look at Yaacov’s words quickly reveals that the blessings he bestows聽are not always blessings. Reuven, the first-born, is stripped of his聽prestigious position and reprimanded for his unstable, hasty behavior.聽Shimon and Levi receive a tongue-lashing 鈥 they were the ones who went聽and slaughtered a whole town because the son of the prince of that city聽had raped Dina, their sister. Let me not be counted in their coterie. Their聽ire is cursed (note: their actions are cursed 鈥 not the brothers).聽Just to show that this was not prophesy but rather a rehashing of the past,聽remember which tribe came to Moshe’s side at Mt. Sinai and later聽received the honor of being the caretakers of the tabernacle 鈥 Levi.

As for the leader, Yaacov obviously favors Yosef. Yosef is not only the聽firstborn of the woman for whom he toiled 14 years. Yosef also shares聽one of Yaacov’s outstanding qualities: he’s a dreamer. Of course, Yaacov聽dreamt about seeing and meeting angels while Yosef dreamt of聽domination over others. But a dreamer recognizes the kindred spirit of聽another dreamer, and combined with the emotional ties, Yosef should聽have been the odds-on favorite.聽Yosef was blessed from birth with grace and charm and attractiveness, as聽well as the ability to rule others, and the blessings he receives from his聽father will be greater than those his father (Yaacov) received. Yes, he is聽favored. He will succeed. He will have dominion. But he will not be the聽leader. He never was and could not be a uniting force. (When Yosef tells聽his brothers to inform Yaacov that he, Yosef is still alive, twice he says, “Tell him about my high position, about my honor here.” He’s still a聽narcissist.)

The leader will be Yehuda. As we saw two weeks ago, the fourth child of聽Leah is practical. He is a man of his word. He takes action when action is聽needed. Specifically, I believe that Yaacov was convinced of Yehuda’s聽leadership qualities when Yehuda took responsibility for Binyamin on the聽trip to Egypt.

But in this litany of blessings and settling old scores there’s another聽message, one that may pass under the radar here but that we celebrate on聽Succoth. On Succoth we have the four species: lulav, etrog, hadas and聽aravot, and we are told that they represent the four types of Jews: those聽who have aroma but no taste (learning but no good deeds), those who聽have taste but no aroma (good deeds but no learning), those who have both aroma and taste, and those who have neither. And all four have to be held聽together to fulfill the mitzvah 鈥 we need all types of Jews in our extended聽community to make up the whole.

And here too, we have twelve聽brothers, each with his own character and聽proclivities. Only when they work together do they create one large and聽unified family, one extended and cohesive community. We all have our聽strong points and, goodness knows, we all have our weak points. Now, as聽then, when we know how to harness the qualities that each one can聽contribute so that they outweigh the shortcomings in the individual; in聽the others, when we allow those who can 鈥 to lead in their areas of聽expertise and strength, then we create a sturdy, resilient community that聽can deal with the forces that are aligned against us from within and from聽without.聽It is聽then that we will have the strength to prevail against sometimes聽overwhelming odds.

Shabbat Shalom


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