Mesorah D.C.: Parshat “Vayechi”

January 4th, 2010 by Menachem Wecker

This post is part of a feature of critical responses to sermons by religious leaders.

I wanted to share an interesting sermon that the rabbi at Mesorah D.C. delivered this past Friday night. The rabbi doesn’t seem to post his sermons, so I am keeping him anonymous.

The rabbi began by noting that the weekly portion, which begins at Genesis 47: 28, features a peculiar layout.

Most portions start off with one of two different sorts of indentations, but this portion is not immediately accessible when one scans the Torah scroll. (More info here.)

The rabbi connected the unusual layout with what he said was a biblical statement that Jacob tried to reveal to his sons when the Messiah would arrive (it is clear from here that it is a quote from Rashi not from the bible).

Why, wondered the rabbi, did the bible record that Jacob tried to reveal the Messianic arrival date if he failed? (Obviously the easy answer is the Torah did not ever claim that; Rashi did.) He connected the attempt with a question as to why the portion, when it says Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years, used the word “vayechi” (from which the root “chai” comes) instead of the more regular “vayeshev” to mean “he lived.” (When I asked him about all the references in Genesis 5 to people living, using the root “chai,” he said the difference was “vayeshev” is usually used when the verse specifies where the character lives.)

The rabbi then cited the Zohar, which, according to him, says that Jacob was living the best years of his life in Egypt. One wonders, though, why Jacob’s life was just getting better and better when he told Pharaoh just verses earlier in Genesis 47:9, “The years of my life are 130 years — few and evil were the days of the years of my life, and they didn’t reach the days of the years of my fathers in their travels.” It would seem to me that Jacob was probably not a very happy person at the moment.

The rabbi somehow related all this to a parable. Declaring the kugel at the bottom of the pot to be the most tasty, the rabbi said a queen would never ask to be served that part of the dish, because it was beneath her honor. The queen would instead, the rabbi speculated, ask a servant to get it for her on the sly. Evidently, this somehow relates the “hidden-ness” of the beginning of the Torah portion and the way the ability to tell his sons when he would die evaded Jacob.

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