Double Mitzvah – Vayechi

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Check out our recent column, Double Mitzvah – Vayigash.

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Rated PGThis week’s portion, like all portions, is named after its first significant word. In this case, Vayechi, “and he lived.” It’s Jacob who’s doing the living, as the opening verse has it: “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt” (Genesis 47:28). And yet, what Jacob spends the portion doing, is dying. We learn that he is ill, and we watch him in deathbed scene after deathbed scene. First he spends time with Joseph, then with his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, and finally with all of his boys. Having said all that needed to be said, “he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (ibid. 49:33).

Vayechi Ya’akov, Jacob lived. And we read, in extraordinary detail, as he dies. Ironic, yes? And it’s not the first time something like this happens. Earlier in the book of Genesis, we have a portion called Chayyei Sarah, “the life of Sarah;” she dies is the second verse, and the rest of the chapter deals with her funeral arrangements. Further along, at the end of the same portion, Abraham dies. Why do chapters with “life” in the title fixate on death?

It seems to me that there’s a lesson here. It’s a lesson about our particular way of not sanitizing things. Jews are famously “hands-on” when it comes to death, certainly in comparison to our neighbors (for U.S. readers, at least). Caskets go in the ground, earth is shoveled by the family. We don’t shy away from death in reading our Torah, and this helps us to look it square in the eye when it touches our lives.

Every moment of life, from beginning to end, is worth exploring. Every moment of life, from beginning to end, can be a blessing. Even the ones that are sometimes thought of as “unmentionable,” to say nothing of “unblessable.” To my mind, that’s the real blessing of this website, and it is the reason I accepted the invitation to write this year’s “Double Mitzvah” columns. Torah doesn’t shy away from any corner of life; why should we?

A small slice of Jacob’s deathbed blessing to Joseph (Gen 49:22-26) drives the point home. In blessing Joseph, Jacob invokes

….blessings of heaven above,
Blessings of the deep that couches below,
Blessings of the breasts and womb.
The blessings of your father
Surpass the blessings of my ancestors,
To the utmost bounds of the eternal hills.

Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) quotes his father Joseph (1105-1170) on the verse:

Breasts, to nurse, and the mother’s womb; then, immediately the blessings of your father. These three are the source of an offspring’s blessing: father, mother, wet nurse.

Yes, there are blessings to be found in the “heavens above,” in the realm that we usually think of as religion’s turf. But the earthier parts of life are no less blessed. And so, as we read Parashat Vayechi, bidding farewell to Jacob, Joseph, and the rest of the Avot (until next year), we might take a moment to offer thanks for this tradition of ours. To a Judaism that celebrates life in all of its dimensions, from the heavens to the earth, to the depths below! Lechayim!

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  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    “Torah doesn’t shy away from any corner of life; why should we?” Well said. And thank you, Rabbi Bach! You have guided us so beautifully through the book of Bereishit (Genesis). I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us in Shemot (Exodus)!

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