‘Case Closed’ Parashat Vayechi 5778

A Torah scroll starts every parasha with a new paragraph. Every parasha, that is, except for Parashat Vayechi, which follows Parashat Vayigash after a narrow white space, typically less than one letter wide. Rashi notices this oddity and he brings two explanations. In this shiur, we will be analysing Rashi’s famous[1] first explanation [Bereishit 47:28]: “Why is this parasha [completely] closed? Because as soon as our father Yaakov passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed” (i.e., it became “dark” for them) because of the misery of the slavery, for [the Egyptians] began to subjugate them.” While our parasha is named “Vayechi” – “[Yaakov] lived” – its second verse tells us that [Bereishit 47:29] “Yisrael’s[2] life neared its end”. The parasha describes Yaakov’s last days and his preparations for his imminent death. While Yaakov came to Egypt as a welcome guest, his death heralded the onset of a brutal exile that would last nearly two hundred years.

A number of commentators, including Da’at Ha’Zekenim mi’Baalei Ha’Tosafot, find Rashi’s answer problematic in that it is self-contradictory. Rashi, in his commentary on Shemot [6:16], teaches that the subjugation of the Jews in Egypt did not begin until after the death of the last of Yaakov’s sons. While the exodus occurred some 210 years after Yaakov arrived in Egypt[3], the Midrash Seder Olam calculates that Am Yisrael were engaged in actual bondage for “only” 116 years[4]. The upshot is that nothing changed after Yaakov died: Joseph was still Pharaoh’s second-in-command and Am Yisrael were still treated as Pharaoh’s guests. There would be no “misery of slavery” for nearly eighty years.

The Da’at Ha’Zekenim answers his own question. Early in the Book of Shemot [1:13] we are told how “the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back-breaking labour”. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [11b] breaks[5] the word “perech” – “back-breaking labour” – into two parts: “peh-rach”, literally a “soft mouth”. The Talmud explains that the Egyptians did not enslave Am Yisrael overnight. The subjugation evolved over a period of time that began with the Egyptians sweet-talking the Jews into doing their work. The Egyptians first asked them if they would be kind enough to perform menial labour. Eventually the Egyptians stopped “asking” and began “demanding”. According to the Da’at Ha’Zekenim, this slow descent into slavery began when Yaakov died.

I have trouble with this answer, as it is potentially based on a misunderstanding of the word “parasha”. To most people, a “parasha” is one of the 54 weekly portions read over the course of one year: Bereishit, Noach, Lech Lecha, and so on. A “parasha” can also refer to a “paragraph” – a break – in a Torah scroll. Some breaks are “open”, meaning that they begin on a new line (ENTER), and others are “closed”, meaning that they begin after a break the width of nine-letters (TAB). A Torah scroll contains 673 paragraphs. When Rashi comments that “this parasha” is surprisingly closed, it is a much greater surprise if this particular paragraph is the only closed one out of 673 in the entire Torah than if this particular portion is the only closed one out of 54 in the entire Torah. If we can agree that Rashi is referring to the closure of the first paragraph in Parashat Vayechi and not the closure of the entire portion, then the “misery of slavery” that Rashi connects with the death of Yaakov should have something to do with the closed paragraph. However, the first paragraph of Parashat Vayechi seems completely benign – there is no indication of even the slightest whiff of slavery.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe gives us a way ahead by pointing us at Rashi’s source, the Midrash in Bereishit Raba. There is a slight discrepancy between the words of the Midrash and the words as quoted by Rashi. Specifically, the Midrash refers to “slavery” as the cause of the “closure of the eyes and hearts of Israel”, while Rashi modifies the word to “misery of slavery”. What is the difference? The Da’at Ha’Zekenim would assert that Rashi is referring to the slippery slope that preceded the actual slavery but I suggest that Rashi is referring to something else[6]. To understand Rashi we must look at the last verses of Parashat Vayigash.

Parashat Vayigash concludes with a description of the growing effects of the famine in Egypt[7] but it is the very last verse that interests us here [Bereishit 47:27]: “Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly”. It is noteworthy that the Torah writes “Vayeshev Yisrael” (Israel dwelt) in the singular and not “Vayeshvu Yisrael” in the plural, while the other three verbs in the verse – “acquired” (va’ye’achazu), “were prolific” (va’yifru), and “multipled” (va’yirbu) – are all written in the plural. This use of the singular is very reminiscent of the description of Am Yisrael at the foot of Mount Sinai as they stood ready to receive the Torah [Shemot 19:2]: “Israel camped there opposite the mountain”.  The word “va’yichan” – “camped” – is in the singular. Rashi notes this and explains that they camped “like one person with one heart”. There was no dissonance. Everyone was on the same page. They were all there to hear the Word of Hashem. Indeed, the Or HaChayim HaKadosh connects the verse at the Revelation at Sinai with the last verse of Parashat Vayigash, explaining that the use of the singular “Israel dwelt” indicates that “[Yaakov’s sons] were all of a special heart and that they felt no division”. Moreover, it was this unity that enabled them to “acquire” the land.

This unity evaporates after Yaakov dies [Bereishit 50:15]: “Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died and they said, ‘Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.’” They plead for their lives and offer themselves as slaves. Joseph tells them that they should not fear [Bereishit 50:19]: “Am I in Hashem’s stead? While your intentions were nefarious, Hashem’s intentions were not”. He and his brothers were merely pawns in a Divine game of chess. Joseph’s kidnapping, his enslavement and his subsequent meteoric rise to power were necessary in order to enable Yaakov, his family, and the rest of the world, to survive a drought of historic proportions. As understanding as Joseph sounds, though, what he is implicitly telling his brothers is “I’d like to take revenge but I can’t”. If things had turned out differently, if he had languished in prison, if he had never met Pharaoh, then he would have felt perfectly justified in taking retribution. The first words Joseph and his brothers share after the death of Yaakov is a clear indication that the unity exemplified at the end of Parashat Vayigash is destined to wither and die. In the Egyptian exile the only way to survive would be “each man for himself”. The break-down of Jewish unity was “misery of slavery” that Rashi was referring to.

If the exile began with the loss of unity, then it is fair to assume that the redemption will be heralded by a return of Jewish unity. As Yaakov prepares to bless his sons on his deathbed, he tells them [Bereishit 49:1] “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen at the end of days.” If you want to merit seeing the end of days, then you will have to learn how to gather together. We’ve spent the last two thousand years living the “Three-shuls-for-two-Jews” joke. The time has come to move on.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Freida, and Yocheved Sarah bat Miriam.

[1] A “famous” Rashi is a Rashi that I remember hearing in primary school.

[2] The Torah’s use of both of Yaakov’s names here was the topic of our shiur for Vayishlach 5778.

[3] Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt to purchase grain with the words [Bereishit 42:2] “R’du shama” – “Go down there”. The numerical value of the word “R’du” is 210.

[4] Anyone who is interested in learning how I used this fact to put my foot so deep in my mouth that I needed surgery to remove it is invited to ask me personally.

[5] Pun intended.

[6] The idea we present here is based to a certain extent upon the words of the Rebbe, but it differs sufficiently that it is not attributed to him.

[7] The Midrash teaches that the famine ended five years early, when Yaakov arrived in Egypt. R’ Ben Reiser correctly notes that the last verses in Parashat Vayigash seem to contradict this thesis. See https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/50979/if-jacobs-arrival-in-egypt-ended-the-famine-there-why-was-there-famine-in-cana for a number of answers.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.