January 17, 2020

Weekly Parsha: Vayechi

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

[Jacob said,] “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm — Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” –Genesis 48:16


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

How could Yaakov be praying to an angel? Isn’t this idolatry? The traditional answer is that the angel was really a messenger of God, and since a halachic messenger is an extension of the sender, Yaakov really was praying to God. Yet the commentator Shadal offers a very different and poignant alternative. 

In the name of his own father, Shadal teaches that there was in fact no angel involved at all. Rather, the word “malach” refers to the one receiving the blessing, not the one giving it. He explains that Yaakov nicknamed Yosef “the angel who redeemed me from all harm” because finding out that his beloved son Yosef was still alive gave Yaakov a second chance at life and happiness. Yosef was thus Yaakov’s redeemer. And so Yaakov’s blessing asks that not only Menasheh and Ephraim be blessed but that Yosef be blessed too. 

Any parent can imagine giving a child such an epithet, “my daughter, my son, who makes my life worth living, who makes all of the obstacles until now worth it.” But truthfully, epithets like this can apply in all of our relationships. And so, as we read this timeless blessing, let’s take the opportunity to reflect: Who are the “angels” in my life? Who would I describe as “the angel who redeemed me from all harm” and do they know I feel that way? May we be inspired to not only bless those who have been our angels but to become angels to one another. 

Gershon Schusterman
Rabbi, mashpia, writer, businessman 

Jacob was on his deathbed and Joseph brought his two sons to receive their grandfather’s blessings. Menashe and Ephraim, raised in Pharaoh’s perverted, idol-worshipping Egypt, remained unaffected. Jacob wanted to confer his legacy of being a people apart, to guide and protect them throughout future Diasporas. Jacob conveyed a formula that would bind the Jewish future with its eminent past. 

Foremost, Jacob knew that God’s protective providence, expressed as His guardian angel, was essential for Jewish existence. 

To be worthy of God’s providence, Jacob invoked that the names of Abraham, Isaac and himself should be declared in them, the children. By these means, their children after them would identify with their predecessors’ mission and then take up their role in their eternal heritage. 

Living Judaism’s religious heritage stokes the fire of one’s soul. Judaism, axiomatically, is a matter of the spirit, but it needs to be nurtured in daily life. Jewish consciousness can lie dormant for only a few generations. Without it, of course we survive as persons. But from the viewpoint of a “people with a mission,” it makes little difference whether a division is exterminated or disperses into the hills and casts off its uniforms. Jacob concluded: If they carry on the mission, they would then be worthy of flourishing as Jews in the midst of the lands, wherever they would find themselves in future millennia. 

Jacob’s blessing sums up the essence of Jewish continuity: We will have no future unless our past is vitally present.

Rabbi and Cantor Eva Robbins
N’vay Shalom, expandedspirit.org

As Jacob confronts death and his lack of sight, like his father before him, he knows it is time to bless his children. He begins with Joseph and his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Reunited with his beloved son Joseph and the double blessing of grandsons, he now trusts God’s promise, “I will make you fruitful and numerous. … I will give this land to your offspring …” He calls upon God, who “shepherded me from my inception until this day,” and God’s redeeming messenger, “HaMalach,” to bless these boys and that he and his forefathers, Isaac and Abraham, be remembered through them. 

As a grandparent, I understand Jacob’s desire for their continued protection and welfare. The greatest fulfillment is to see one’s child experience the love and optimism that moves them to bring life into the world. A grandchild, more than anything, represents the future. Jacob, who knew firsthand the protective and shielding presence of God’s messenger, first in his dream of angels climbing and descending the ladder at Beit Eyl (House of God) and then later wrestling with a stranger and receiving the new name Yisra-Eyl (Wrestler with G-od) at P’ni-Eyl (Face of God). Throughout his life, this redeeming angel accompanied him and now he calls the same guidance upon his family foreshadowing, as well, that the people will also receive this gift, “I send an angel before you to protect you …” (Exodus 23:20) 

May each one of us recognize HaShem’s presence in the many angels in our lives.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Executive director, Aish LA

Are we going underground with rising anti-Semitism? Are we dressing differently, naming our children using only contemporary designations, and dropping our Jewish jargon? Hide in plain sight? Maybe some of us already have. 

But not if you are the family of Jacob. 

This week’s verse is the source of our custom to bless our sons on Friday night to be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph, Jacob’s grandchildren. They were the first Jews to grow up in exile, Egypt, the world’s superpower. They remained strong in their observance and Torah outlook and did not assimilate.

They lived under the tutelage of Joseph, the second most powerful person in the world, who had unbridled access to power and wealth and refrained from it. Their self-restraint was as great as the other tribal antecedents (Reuven, Shimon, etc.) who were raised from Day One under the watchful eye and spiritual influence of Jacob, our Patriarch.

Ephraim and Menashe did not change their outward appearance. They proudly defined themselves as “the other” even though marooned from the center of Jewish life. And what gave their father, Joseph, the ability to live in such an environment and not be harmed? Joseph’s fidelity to God and guarding his eyes; never looking at anything inappropriate, which is an ancient Jewish discipline.

While you might think now is the time to drop our Jewishness, it’s precisely the time to embrace our Judaism. Our faith in God is where all blessings emulate and where refuge can be found. 

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Spiritual leader, Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village 

When Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh, he does not ask that God bless the boys, but rather that the “angel who redeemed” him bless them. This angel is obviously important to Jacob, but what can we learn about an angel that redeems? Redemption, by definition, means that there was an “exile” of some sort. What kind of harm or exile had Jacob experienced that he calls upon his redeeming angel at the time of blessing his descendants? 

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l) taught in a commentary on Vayechi that “exile” means we’ve stopped thinking and feeling. True exile and harm occur when we stop growing psychologically, emotionally and/or spiritually, and become numb. Jacob experienced numerous challenges in his life: his exile from Canaan and Esau’s wrath; his escaping from Laban; his powerful dreams. But Jacob’s greatest harm occurred when he felt exiled from life itself upon hearing of Joseph’s death. The story of that son’s death understandably distanced him from any feeling or thinking. 

But Jacob was redeemed in each of his challenges, especially when he learned that Joseph was actually still alive. “His spirit was revived” (Genesis 45:27). In blessing his grandchildren, Jacob calls upon all of us to be messengers of redemption, and to never stop feeling and thinking. We must always experience life fully … and be revived. 

May we all be angels of redemption; keep each other aware on every level; and think, feel and inspire others to never get lost in the exile of numbness.