Thursday, January 5, 2012

A "closed parasha" during a week of chaos in the Holy Land

Finding the beginning of Parashat Vayechi is a harder task than any other parasha in the Torah. It is the only parasha that does not have a break between it and the previous one, dubbed in Hebrew a parasha setuma, a “closed parasha.”

Like in English rhetoric, the physical separation in the Torah between parshiot typically represents a thematic break of some kind. But why no break this week?

Rashi (Northern France, 1040-1105), citing the midrash, says that the first pasuk of Parashat Vayehi begins on a negative note, and thus the two parshiot are elided together in the writing of the Torah. We read in Breishit 47:27-28 (the end of Parashat Vayigash and beginning of Parashat VaYehi): 27 Then Israel lived in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they got them possessions therein, and were fruitful, and multiplied exceedingly. 28 And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Rashi suggests that because Yaakov’s death has been foreshadowed, his descendants blocked (nistamu) their eyes and hearts from the upcoming slavery that would await them. Another interpretation, Rashi says, is that Yaakov attempted to tell the people of Israel that his days were numbered, but they prevented him from doing so (nistam mimeno).

Common to both of these interpretations is that form follows function: just as Bnei Yisrael did not want to hear the negative news, the physical structure of the Torah itself does not want to begin the parasha on such a foreboding note. 

Last week in shul, I heard Rav Benny Lau of Beit Knesset Ramban in Jerusalem add another interpretation to Rashi, dedicated to the memory of his uncle. He suggests that we have a parasha setuma in Parashat Vayehi not because of the beginning of Parashat Vayechi, but rather because the final pasuk of Parashat Vayigash speaks of the children of Israel becoming rich and multiplying while in Goshen. That was never supposed to happen. Yaakov’s children were supposed to make a quick trip to restock the food supply and then head back to Canaan. But they became preoccupied with the momentary wealth of this foreign land, ultimately being seduced by it. It would only be a matter of time before a Pharaoh “who did not know Yosef” would rise over the land of Egypt. 

Rav Benny Lau represents the creative religious energy that is so refreshing with each and every visit I make here. He delivers each dvar Torah with passion and humility, packed with content, with a take-away connected to the cultural currents of the day. He is a model to me for what it means to live a committed Jewish life fused with lived experiences of the real situations that surround him. He emphasizes the need to build the state upon the values of our tradition, of crafting Medinat Yisrael that lives up to the deep morality entrenched in the Torah. 

During a week of Jewish infighting in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh, I want to elevate Rabbi Lau’s model of religious passion and commitment to the fullness of Jewish expression in the Jewish state. Such creativity must shine forth during this nadir of sinat chinam (senseless hatred) among the nation of Israel.

The Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism recently created a website devoted to spreading the light of Judaism for all to see. In the midst of a group of Jews spreading darkness by dressing up in concentration camp uniforms and yellow stars, this message of the Rabbinical Assembly shows that so many Jews live a life committed to bringing the light of Torah into the world. Please consider adding your own pictures to the site.

As we learn from the parasha setuma between Parashat VaYigash and Parashat VaYehi, we do not end or begin a week on an ominous note, on one of destruction. As we finish the book of Breishit this week, let us bring the light of Torah, of Jewish creativity, with gusto into the world.

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