November 15, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Vayechi

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

[Israel] instructed them, saying to them, “I am about to be gathered unto my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite.” Genesis 49:29

Miriam Yerushalmi
Author, CEO of SANE

This week’s parsha is called Vayechi, “And he lived.” Yakov spent the final 17 years of his life in Mitzrayim, Egypt. There, he “lived” quietly, peacefully, with no external threats and no internal drama, free to learn Torah in comfort, surrounded by his entire intact family. Yet he requested that in the end, he “be gathered unto my people” and buried “with my fathers” — back home in Canaan!

This is an eternal message to us. You may be living in a foreign land, comfortably ensconced in mitzroyim, the “narrow straits” of physicality and worldly temptations. Yakov’s message is that, yes, in that foreign land he lived what seemed to be the good life, but it was not the place where he belonged. It was, however, necessary, and allowed him to return whole to his true home, to our father in heaven.

It is through this world, this foreign land, that we can reach the higher heights of our true home. 

My children once rescued a bird that had been hit by a car. We kept it in a cage to recuperate until its wings healed, to protect it from predatory creatures. The bird, though, did not appreciate the protection; it felt trapped, and continually tried to break free. We are like the bird, in the cage of this world. If we recognize this world is a protective cage for us, we can utilize our time here to grow stronger in holiness, and make ourselves worthy to be “with our fathers.”

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
American Jewish University

Two separate speech acts, signaled by two verbs (“and he instructed,” “and he said”) begin this short but complicated verse. Jacob’s command (“bury me with my ancestors”) encloses his statement (“I am about to be gathered unto my kin”). Jacob announces his death and, at the same time, commands his sons to bury him. This story (Genesis 49:29-33) rehearses almost exactly the short opening tale of this series when Joseph is summoned to his father’s bedside as he lays dying (47:28-31). There is, however, one significant difference. In our story, Jacob recounts the history of Abraham’s real estate deal with Ephron the Hittite. The deal is introduced in our verse, expanded upon in the next verse and then the second verse after that. 


Jacob presents himself as a Diasporic Jew. There is no mention of the promise of the whole Land, there is no mention of the return. Jacob is connected to the land, not by force of capture, nor by Divine intervention, but, rather, through family and a piece of real estate bought at a fair price from its original owner. Jacob’s return, in death, to Canaan was brokered with Pharaoh, and conditioned upon a return to Egypt.

This minimalist story of Jewish existence has always existed in tension with the maximalist version in which there are no others with whom we need negotiate. Nowadays, it seems that the maximalist version is leading us down the primrose path to perdition. 

Ilana Wilner
Shalhevet High School/Judaic Studies Teacher and Director of Student Activities

In our verse, Yakov turns to all of his sons on his deathbed, commanding them to bury him in Israel. This request is familiar: Yakov earlier implored his son Yosef to bury him in Israel. However, now when turning to all his sons, he asks to be buried in Maarat HaMachpella alongside Avraham, Sarah, Yitzhak, Rivka and his wife, Leah. What has happened in the interim that he makes this specific request of his sons? 

After Yakov instructs Yosef on his burial, he blesses Yosef’s children, Ephraim and Menashe, yet switches his hands and gives the blessing of the bechor, the oldest child, to Ephraim, who is the younger one. Yosef is shocked by his father’s overt favoritism and tries to correct Yakov. Seeing Yosef’s reaction, Yakov learns from his own favored son the importance of treating all his sons equally. He now gathers all his sons as one, “all of these are the tribes of Israel,” while also giving them each a bracha, a blessing, “appropriate for them.” 

Here, Yakov is making amends. Not only does he now turn to all his children but he makes clear — and perhaps understands himself for the first time — that he needs to be buried alongside Leah, the less favored wife and the mother of the less favored children. Yakov , in this final request, is repairing his relationships and teaching us a valuable lesson that no one person can carry the legacy. It must be the collective group, and in doing so, he creates Bnei Yisrael, the nation known as the Children of Israel. 

Rabbi Tal Sessler
Sephardic Temple

The name of our parsha is a veritable oxymoron. Vayechi means “And he lived,” and yet —everybody — dies in this parsha. Jacob dies, Joseph dies, and in the associated haftarah from Scripture, King David dies. The Talmud suggests that “Jacob never died” because we — his spiritual descendants — are still alive. In other words, because Jacob left a lasting legacy for perpetuity. 

In Amos Oz’s novel “My Michael,” the heroine asks her husband what does he live for. His answer? Most people don’t live for something, they simply live by way of sheer physical inertia. To live spiritually, like Jacob, Joseph and King David did, is about so much more than mere biological facticity. It is about living up to the four L’s of spiritual real estate, as articulated by Steven Covey, namely to “live,” “love,” “learn” and “leave a legacy.” “To live” entails enjoyment, “to love” is about cultivating relationships, “to learn” is about constant growth, and “to leave a legacy” is about leading an impactful existence whose effects continue to reverberate and loom large long after we are physically gone. 

Lamentably, observes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, some people live without a compass or a sense of purpose. Such people “can spend months planning a lavish party or a vacation, but not a single day to plan a lifetime.”

Nietzsche famously preached “to live dangerously.” The Torah invites us to live forcefully, with passion and vigor, with intensity and with boundless joy, with the dignity of a purpose, and with the loftiness of a vocation.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive Director, Aish LA

What will be your very last words?

Jacob leaves a cryptic message that there is a next world and to bury him in Israel, and then expires immediately afterward. 

Jacob was sending a missive to the Egyptians that we Jews are never going to be naturalized. He knew the Egyptians were planning to enslave the Jews. He had to orient his descendants’ hearts and minds toward their true inheritance: the Promised Land. And yet only 20 percent of the Hebrews left Egypt when the choice was before them on Passover night.

Jacob knew he was establishing sentimental, indestructible ties linking Israel to wherever his descendants would find themselves throughout history. Even in death we can influence our family for centuries to come. 

By linking the children of Jacob to his burial site, they would be connected forever to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and to their message: Your life will create your afterlife. Furthermore, Jacob incentivized the Jews to never give up the land that possessed the burial Vault of their Forebears. He knew the Jews would need a place to supplicate to the Almighty, as we do today, when bereft of the Temple. 

Inspired by Jacob, my wife and I hope to be buried in Israel. We think about what we will write on our tombstones as an eternal communique to our great-great grandchildren. 

What would you like to say and where would you leave it? Send a message for the ages to ensure the continuity of our future generations.