Vayekhi, which means “and he [Jacob] lived,” is the last Torah portion in the book of Genesis and concludes the saga of the patriarchs and matriarchs. It ends the part of the Torah in which the Jewish presence in the world is essentially that of an extended family, a clan, before transitioning in the subsequent book, Exodus, to the life of a people, a nation.
In the parashah, Jacob has lived the last 17 years of his life in Egypt, where he was reunited with his son Joseph. Three portions back, in Vayeshev, the second verse of the parashah declares: “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph, seventeen years old, was tending the flocks with his brothers.” Vayeshev goes on to describe Jacob’s favoring of Joseph, Joseph’s coat of many colors, his dreams, etc. Vayekhi opens near the end of Jacob’s life. It is about three years after the end of the seven years of plenty and the seven years of famine.
Among the major things that occur, Jacob exacts a promise from Joseph to not let Jacob be buried in the land of Egypt, but to bring him back to Machpelah, the cave his grandfather, Abraham, purchased from the Hittites as a burial site. Subsequently, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, and later goes on to bless the rest of Jacob’s sons. This element of blessing is crucial to the parashah, as is this connection, this bond, to the land of Israel.
“Blessing” is clearly a central pillar of our tradition. The practice of reciting brachot, blessings, is possibly the most common spiritual practice in Judaism. The first tractate of the Talmud is Brachot (blessings) which, interestingly enough, begins the first “order” (seder) of the six orders of the Mishnah, called “seeds” (zera’im).
The practice of making blessings helps to seed a sense of gratitude in a person. It helps to cultivate an awareness and recognition of the Eternal One as the source of all blessings in our lives. It helps to connect the consciousness of a person to the underlying spiritual presence that permeates the physical world and nourishes our sensitivity to the spiritual core of our physical existence. Hopefully, it facilitates our not taking our lives – or anything in them – for granted.
Of course, simply reciting the words of a bracha (blessing) is not sufficient in itself. As the medieval philosopher and Bible commentator Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) said about prayer (tefilah) in general: “tefilah b’lo kavana kaguf b’lo neshama” (prayer without kavana – proper attention, consciousness – is like a body without a soul).
If you don’t water the “seed” of the recitation of blessings with consciousness and intention, it’s a lot to expect it to magically cultivate an awareness of God’s presence on its own. But maybe making blessings by rote, without kavana, may someday lead to saying them with kavana.
Most of the preceding applies to our use of blessings when it’s part of prayer in addressing the Eternal One. However, we also use the same word, bracha, to refer to bestowing a blessing on other people, such as our children before Kiddush on Friday nights. The implication of the word bracha is clearly not the same when referring to bestowing blessings on other people and when addressing God.
When addressing God, we are acknowledging God as the source of all blessings; when addressing people, we are expressing our desire for them to receive that bounty.
Speaking of the Friday evening blessing bestowed on our children, the formula that opens the blessing for our sons (a different opening formulation is used for our daughters, referencing the matriarchs) is taken from one of the early verses of Vayekhi, in which Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menasheh (i.e. “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe”). Similar to the way Jacob offering the blessing is described in the parashah, we place our hands on our children’s heads. This is reminiscent of the way in which Moses transfers spiritual energy and authority to Joshua, placing his hands on Joshua’s head.
After the section in which Jacob blesses his grandchildren, he addresses his sons. He asks them to gather so he can tell them what will transpire in the “end of days.”
However, Jacob does not end up revealing this. A midrash explains that the spirit of prophecy, through which Jacob would reveal this “end of days” scenario, has left him, symbolized by the unique occurrence in the Torah in which the beginning of parashah Vayekhi has no space between it and the end of the preceding parashah, Vayigash. It is stuma (closed) – i.e., the window of prophecy was closed to him.
Jacob goes on to assess the character, strengths and weaknesses of each of his sons. These strengths and weaknesses will largely determine their fates, their futures. It is a kind of blessing for someone who loves us to candidly tell us about ourselves, to help us look at ourselves more objectively than we can see ourselves, to tell us what strengths we should continue to cultivate and what weaknesses we should strive to overcome.
We probably all have a need to instill the values we cherish in those who come after us and to discourage the qualities that we perceive as problematic. We have a need to embrace what we love and to affirm it, to bequeath the understanding of life that we have acquired over the course of our lives and to pass that on to subsequent generations.
One of the central themes in the Torah is the attachment to the land of Israel. Jacob gets Joseph to swear to bury him in the cave of Machpelah. Joseph asks that his bones be brought to the land of Israel when God finally brings our ancestors back to the land.
The book of Genesis concludes the story of the patriarchs and matriarchs and ends with the sense of exile in the land of Egypt, but with a belief in liberation and a return to the Promised Land.
Khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek! – be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!
MARK ELBER is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Fall River.