May 17, 2024
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Parshas Vayechi “Changing the World”

I’ve always been impressed by something my grandfather told me many years ago. I believe he quoted the following in the name of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th-century founder of the Mussar Movement, which advocated the perfection of our ethical behavior:

“When you’re young, you think you can change the world.

As you get older, you realize that you can’t do that, but you’re still convinced that you can change the town in which you live.

Then, there reaches a point where you realize you can’t do that either.

But you’re still sure that you can change your family.

Finally, you become aware that the most you can do is change yourself.”

What’s amazing to me, however, are the rare examples of individuals who have been able to change their worlds. I remember, for example, the older couple who lived in a community in which I once lived. We were a group of young married couples, most of whom were in the final stages of their professional training. The older man and his wife were both Holocaust survivors. We were certain that they felt out of place in our youth-oriented community. But eventually we realized not only that they fit in with us, but that they had an impact on each of us individually and upon our group as a whole. One couple was able to subtly but profoundly change an entire community.

I also recall the relatively few young men and women who were able to galvanize the American Jewish community to heed the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. The adult religious and political establishments belittled those efforts, thinking them futile, even counterproductive. But a handful of young committed individuals were able to change the attitudes of masses of Jews, finally achieving nothing less than the freedom of millions of our brethren.

Individuals can impact entire societies. This lesson can be learned from a careful study of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26). For, as I hope to demonstrate, Jacob alone changed his social environment at least twice in his life. Once, early on, he influenced the small town of Be’er Sheba. Then, during the last stage of his life, he performed the feat of changing the culture of the most powerful nation of his time: Egypt.

We learned of his first achievement several weeks ago, when we read the first verse of the parsha of Vayetze. “And Jacob left Be’er Sheba and set out for Haran” (Genesis 28:10). Rashi notes that the text emphasizes Jacob’s departure from Be’er Sheba. With his departure, “gone was the glory, gone was the beauty, gone was the prestige,” which Jacob’s presence bestowed upon that town. His very presence added so much to the town that when he left, the town was altered.

Vayechi is one of only two parshiyot that carry the Hebrew word for life, chayim. The other is Parshat Chaye Sarah, which we read a while ago. It begins, “Sarah’s lifetime [the span of Sarah’s life] came to 127 years.” This week, Vayechi begins with the verse, “And Jacob lived 17 years in the land of Egypt.” Ironically, both narratives immediately continue with accounts of the deaths of the two protagonists, those of Sarah and Jacob.

But there is a difference. Chaye Sarah indeed begins with an account of Sarah’s death and burial. On the other hand, this week’s Torah portion refers to the life Jacob lived in his final 17 years, near his beloved Joseph. Those final 17 years parallel the years that Jacob shared with Joseph, until they were tragically separated as Joseph turned 17.

How different these 17 years were from the earlier ones. The initial 17 years of Joseph’s life were full of difficulties for Jacob: the trickery of Laban, the enmity of Esau, the seduction of Dinah, the violence of Simon and Levi, the death in childbirth of Rachel, Reuben’s misconduct…and the heartbreaking disappearance of Joseph.

But his final 17 years, spent in Egypt of all places, were full of life for Jacob, a vibrant and peaceful life, a renewed life, a life lived in the bosom of his family, surrounded by children and grandchildren.

Remarkably, however, Jacob did not sit back idly and simply enjoy those years. Rather, he acted to bring blessing to the land of Egypt. As Rashi states in last week’s Torah portion: “Although Joseph predicted five more years of famine, great blessing accompanied Jacob when he came to Egypt. The people began to plant, and the famine ended.” Other rabbinic sources tell us that it was because of Jacob’s encouragement that the people resumed their agricultural activities, trusting him that they would be productive.

In Hasidic literature, we learn even more about Jacob’s role in Egyptian society. Hasidic sources are fond of quoting the holy Zohar, which notes that never in the lengthy narrative of Jacob’s life is the phrase “and he lived” mentioned, because his life was full of trials and tribulations. Only when he descended to Egypt do we find this precise phrase.

One early-20th-century Hasidic sage, Rabbi Israel of Modzitz, the author of the homiletic work Divrei Yisrael, suggests that the verb in the phrase vayechi, “and he lived [in the land of Egypt],” can be interpreted as a transitive verb: “and he brought life to [the land of Egypt].” He revived Egypt.

Let us not forget that Egypt was, until this famine, the most fertile land on earth, the breadbasket for the world. We recall Lot’s description of the plain of the Jordan, which he believed to be “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10). But when Jacob arrived in Egypt, it was no longer “like the garden of the Lord.” It was not a source of life. It reeked of death, as Egyptian farmers complained: “nothing is left…save our bodies and our farmland. Let us not perish before your eyes…Provide the seed that we may live and not die.”

Rabbi Israel probes deeply in his attempt to understand the spiritual powers that enabled Jacob to vivify a dead land. His analysis is a fascinating one. He points out that in order for a seed to develop into a source of food the seed must go through two processes. It must first decay in the earth, losing all resemblance to the seed it once was. Then it is stimulated to grow. It must have what he calls the koach habitul, the capacity to negate itself, to efface itself. It must also have the koach hatzemicha, the ability to come alive, to sprout, to flourish.

Rabbi Israel continues to demonstrate that these two capacities were characteristic of Jacob, essential to his personality. Firstly, he had the koach habitul, the capacity to demonstrate humility. He once exclaimed: “I am too small to deserve all the kindness that you have so steadfastly shown your servant” (Genesis 32:10). Jacob’s ability to model self-effacement for the rest of Egyptian society was crucial in its revival.

Secondly, Jacob possessed the koach hatzemicha, the capacity to flourish. Here, Rabbi Israel demonstrates his homiletic ingenuity and keen psychological insight. The secret of tzemicha, the ability to transform oneself, to blossom, is the ideal of truth. As the Psalmist says, “Truth will sprout forth from the earth.” Truth has a generative power. It can cause genuine transformation and authentic change. And truth, as Micah teaches us at the very conclusion of his prophecy, is Jacob’s hallmark: “You have granted truth to Jacob, loyalty to Abraham, as you promised on oath to our fathers in days gone by” (Micah 7:20).

Jacob’s humility and his commitment to truth were his two secret powers that enabled him to foster growth in others and to single-handedly transform an entire culture.

Thinking back to the elderly couple who lived among our group of inexperienced twenty-somethings, it was that couple’s sincere humility and their absolute authenticity and truthfulness that enabled them to penetrate our na?vet? and teach us lessons for a lifetime.

And it was the selflessness and genuine commitment of a small group of young people that helped them change the minds of an entire society and eventually even change the minds of the Soviet tyrants.

We can use the occasion of the conclusion of the Book of Genesis this week to rededicate ourselves to those two primary Jewish values: humility and truth. We can, thus, cultivate in ourselves the koach habitul and the koach hatzemicha, the capacity to humbly cause others to flourish.

But Jacob teaches us that we can go beyond changing ourselves. We can influence our families and impact our communities, and perhaps even change the world.

Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb

Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union

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