September 21, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Vayigash

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist 

“I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes.”  –Genesis 46:4

Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat
Vice President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Have you ever gone spelunking?

Last summer, my family and I went spelunking in an enormous cave in the Dominican Republic — which was one of the most extraordinary days of my life. When rappelling into the cave, having an experienced leader is critical. Without our guide, we never would have made it through or out of the dark, winding, watery cave. 

I remembered this experience when I read Ramah’s commentary on this verse. He explained that when two people are about to descend into a deep pit, the one who is confident and accustomed to climbing will always go down first, and afterward, the second person, who is afraid. When coming up from the pit, the skilled one will gladly allow the nervous person to go up first, and only then will the guide ascend. Ramah noted this order is reflected in the Hebrew verse: God “will go down,” and be “with you” in Egypt and then God “will bring you up” and “also go up” after you. 

After the events of the past few weeks — the shooting at the Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, the shooting at the bar in Thousand Oaks, and the Camp and Woolsey fires, it’s hard not to feel like descending into a cavernous pit of despair. Perhaps, in this time, we can hold onto this image of God, who will be with us and lead us out of the cave. Holding on to our community, may we climb on out together. 

Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion, CA

In this verse, God is speaking to calm Jacob’s fears about leaving the Promised Land and descending into Egypt. The phrase at the end of the verse, “and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes,” is a cryptic one. Many of the commentaries explain it as being a promise to Jacob that Joseph will outlive him, i.e. that Joseph will be around to close Jacob’s eyes when he passes. Sforno explains it as meaning that Joseph will care for his father’s needs so that he need not pay attention or worry. 

Another meaning similar to Sforno’s explanation presents itself when comparing this phrase with the term k’sut einayim, a covering of eyes, found in Genesis 20:16. This term refers to anything that proves a compensation for, or felicitous distraction from, some perceived wrong or indignity. In this instance, God is telling Jacob that being reunited with his long-lost son Joseph, who is now in a position to care for his father, will prove enough of a comfort and recompense to Jacob to distract him from the fact he is descending into exile. This sentiment is echoed in Midrash Tanhuma, which allegorizes Jacob to a mother cow who is lured into plowing by following her baby calf. Jacob and his family are being lured into a harsh, yet ultimately productive, exile, in order to fulfill the promise, made to Abraham, but God does this with a gentleness and encouragement that are worth noting and learning from.

Craig Taubman
Founder, Pico Union Project

If I read this verse as Kohelet, I learn, “To everything there is a season.” Seen through the eyes of my walking buddy, an investment guy, I understand it in stock market terms: “There are good days and bad days. Don’t get too excited, and don’t look too often.”

My father-in-law would often ask me, “What’s it all mean, Craigo?” We always concluded that “it” means whatever we make of it. What I make of life’s ups and downs is found in verse 2 of the same chapter: And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” He replied, “Here I am.” The key to this verse is the Hebrew word Hineni, Here I am, and it’s my life mantra. In order to interpret, learn or live a life of Torah, I must be present to my truth. I must “put my whole self in, my whole self out, and shake it all about.”

The verse ends with “And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” Joseph is the great seer who interpreted Pharaoh’s dream when no one else could. Yet even he was blind to how much his actions offended his brothers. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” sometimes “we can’t handle the truth.”

My truth? We’re never in just one place. We are at once: up, down, free and enslaved in Mitzrayim. To find our truth in Torah, business, love or life … we must first jump in!

Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Ohr HaTorah Synagogue

Question: Why were Jacob’s eyes open, that they had to be closed?

The Zohar teaches (I:226a) that a vision of the world can be seen in the eye of the human being, in all its dazzling colors. In the dark center of the eye, a glorious vision of Shekhinah (the indwelling of God) appears. The eye has the capacity to see wonders beyond what is apparent in this world. When a person dies, as the soul surfaces from its deep, concealed place; the eyes see even more — magnificent wonders appear. The startled eyes of a person who has passed away remain open; those standing nearby should close the eyes, as the soul has left the body. 

We are taught that one cannot see the face, panim, of God and live. Perhaps it is better to pronounce that word p’nim, which means interior. Fueled by the passing soul, the eyes of the dying can see the interior of the divine. 

It seems that the mystics who populate the Zohar have seen those visions of which they speak. In mystical practice, it is a momentary death of the ego that enables the mystic to see into a stunning reality beyond what the eye of the ego can see. 

I don’t think you need to be a mystic to efface the ego for a moment and see through the power of the soul. The soul can see that we are surrounded by images of the divine everywhere we go.

Erica Rothblum
Head of School, Pressman Academy

This pasuk embodies words of comfort for Jacob, who is about to embark on a long journey to his son in Egypt. The rabbis who comment on this pasuk discuss the assurance that God grants Jacob, ensuring the Jacob begins his journey with no fear. But this, of course, raises the question of why Jacob would fear the journey — he is leaving a famine-ravaged land to join his favorite son who is in a position of power in Egypt! 

Some suggest that God is not assuring Jacob about his own well-being, but rather that of the entire nation. The commentary Ha’amek Davar notes, “Jacob was afraid that his seed would be absorbed by the Egyptian nation.” Jacob fears that his descendants will assimilate if born into a culture and land far from their ancestral home. 

In this pasuk, then, is the lesson that the model Jew worries not about his own destiny, but rather focuses on the future of the Jewish people. As a community, we need to rededicate ourselves to the future of the Jewish people. Jewish day school education, a key factor in growing and promoting knowledgeable future generations of Jews, is too expensive for many Jewish families. Tuition assistance requests increase every year, and Jewish professionals, the very people who run our Jewish community, are many of the people pushed out. We must unite as a community to address the cost and dedicate ourselves to funding a Jewish day school education for all who want one.