Vayekhi is the last parashah of the book of Genesis.
Genesis, as we all know, begins with the creation of the universe and culminates with the creation of human beings.
By the time the book of Genesis reaches Abraham, it begins to focus primarily on the patriarchs, matriarchs and their immediate offspring, ending with Joseph, who dominates most of the last four parashiot. Vayekhi literally means “And he [Jacob] lived.”
Jacob is approaching death, and the Torah informs us that he has lived in Egypt for the last 17 of his 147 years, 17 also being the age at which Joseph was sold and brought to Egypt. The book ends with his extended family living in exile from the Promised Land.
At this point, things are relatively good for our ancestors in Egypt, nevertheless they are in exile from the Promised Land. The relationship and bond of our ancestors to the land of Israel is and remains a major theme throughout the Torah.
With all four of the first generations of our ancestors, there is a struggle to remain connected to the land of Israel (called the land of Canaan in the Torah – it is not referred to as eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, until I Samuel 13:19).
Abraham is uprooted from his land, from his birthplace, from his father’s house, to go to this unknown land – the land of Canaan. Shortly after settling there, a famine forces him to go down to Egypt. The three successive generations have a similar relationship to the land of Canaan (Isaac being the only one who doesn’t leave Canaan despite the famine in the land). At the same time, every generation longs to return.
At the beginning of Vayekhi, Jacob makes Joseph vow to bury him in the land of Canaan; he doesn’t want to be buried in exile in Egypt. At the very end of the parashah, Joseph also asks that his bones be taken back to the land of Canaan to be buried. He truly believes that one day his descendants will return.
The remaining four books of the Torah end at the border of the land of Israel, with the people about to return to the land of their ancestors after 400 years of exile. Our ancestors dwell there for the next 1,300 years or so, before the destruction of the Second Temple and the expulsion from the land by the Romans.
For most of the next 2,000 years, our people have perceived themselves as living in exile from the land of Israel, but always with a fervent desire to return to the Promised Land.
Joseph is an interesting figure in part because he has been an enormous success in the diaspora, living the vast majority of his life there. Could he have returned to the land of Israel earlier in his life, had he so desired? Circumstances seem to keep him in Egypt.
When Jacob is going to bless Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph’s sons, he precedes the blessing by exclaiming to Joseph that these two boys are like Reuven and Shimon, his own first two sons. Then, surprisingly, when Jacob sees Ephraim and Menashe, he asks, “Who are these?” Is this because they looked so Egyptian in their dress and manner or is it because his vision is so impaired? The text explicitly states that his vision is dim, but he nevertheless knows which boy is which. So, more than likely it is their dress and manner that is so Egyptian, so assimilated into the majority culture.
We are living in a time dramatically different from most of the last 2,000 years of Jewish history, a time in which there is a reborn state of Israel, a time when Jews can fulfill that 2,000-year dream, that hope of living in our ancestral land.
It’s true that during the course of our long exile, some Jews always remained in the land of Israel and individuals did return to the land. There were Jewish communities in Tzfat, Acco, Jerusalem, Tiberius, etc.
When Jews began to return in larger numbers, in the 1880s through the early 1900s, the conditions made it very difficult for them to survive on their own. In the late 1700s, a couple hundred Hassidim went to Israel from Poland/Russia. Most of these communities relied on economic help from the diaspora.
But today Israel is a well-off country. Though it is still dependent on U.S. military aid, we are living in a time when, in contrast to the longings of our ancestors to return, most of us could consider the possibility, but don’t. We may go to visit, or even to live there for a number of years, but we more than likely consider ourselves at home in the diaspora.
Is that because the United States has mostly been a less oppressive diaspora for us than any other?
The connection of diaspora Jews with Israel has changed over the decades, especially in the United States.
The turning point was the Six-Day War. Until then, Jews around the world felt that Israel’s very survival was not secure. Many of us retain that feeling, but younger generations of Jews (those in their 40s and below) don’t necessarily have that sense. These younger Jews tend to be quite liberal, and the intractable problem of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 makes them to a large degree either indifferent to – or turned off by – Israel. The results of Israel’s latest election have exacerbated that situation.
Our connection to Israel, in my opinion, should not be dependent on which political party (or, more accurately, coalition of parties) is in power, however challenging that might be.
There is the reality of Israel, the facts on the ground, so to speak, and there is the ideal of Israel, which helped bring about, at least in part, the modern state.
Of course, our ideals always end up coming up against forces out of our control, and nothing ever seems to live up to our ideals. But our ideals, nonetheless, should fuel our future. We bequeath our ideals, as well as the reality we leave behind us, to the coming generations.
A major component of Vayekhi is Jacob’s act of bestowing blessings on his descendants, beginning with Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and, later in the parashah, on his own sons.
How do we bless the coming generations?
We might formulate a verbal blessing that articulates our wishes and aspirations for the next generation. In a concrete way, though, our blessings for them are the things we pass on that enhance and support their lives. We impart values, language, culture, customs, traditions and beliefs by the very way we live our lives.
Of course, we cannot control what they do with what we have bequeathed to them. The best we can do is try to live as closely to our ideals as possible, and make those ideals as life-enhancing, meaningful and inspiring as we can.
MARK ELBER is the rabbi at Temple Beth El, in Fall River. His recently published book of poetry, “Headstone” (Passager Books, 2022), won the 2022 Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize.