Torah Weekly

For the week ending 26 December 2015 / 14 Tevet 5776

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
Become a Supporter Library Library


After 17 years in Egypt, Yaakov senses his days drawing to a close and summons Yosef. He has Yosef swear to bury him in the Machpela Cave, the burial place of Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka. Yaakov falls ill and Yosef brings to him his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yaakov elevates Ephraim and Menashe to the status of his own sons, thus giving Yosef a double portion that removes the status of firstborn from Reuven. As Yaakov is blind from old age, Yosef leads his sons close to their grandfather. Yaakov kisses and hugs them. He had not thought to see his son Yosef again, let alone Yosef's children. Yaakov begins to bless them, giving precedence to Ephraim, the younger, but Yosef interrupts him and indicates that Menashe is the elder. Yaakov explains that he intends to bless Ephraim with his strong hand because Yehoshua will descend from him, and Yehoshua will be both the conqueror of Eretz Yisrael and the teacher of Torah to the Jewish People. Yaakov summons the rest of his sons in order to bless them as well. Yaakov's blessing reflects the unique character and ability of each tribe, directing each one in its unique mission in serving G-d. Yaakov passes from this world at age 147. A tremendous procession accompanies his funeral cortege up from Egypt to his resting place in the Cave of Machpela in Chevron. After Yaakov's passing, the brothers are concerned that Yosef will now take revenge on them. Yosef reassures them, even promising to support them and their families. Yosef lives out the rest of his years in Egypt, seeing Efraim's great-grandchildren. Before his death, Yosef foretells to his brothers that G-d will redeem them from Egypt. He makes them swear to bring his bones out of Egypt with them at that time. Yosef passes away at the age of 110 and is embalmed. Thus ends Sefer Bereishet, the first of the five Books of the Torah. Chazak


The Moral of the Tale

“G-d spoke to Yisrael in visions of the night…” (46:2)

As every amateur sleuth knows, 221B Baker Street is the London address of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes.

When Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes stories there was no 221 Baker Street. Addresses in Baker Street did not go that high. Baker Street was later extended, and in 1932 the Abbey National Building Society moved into premises at 219–229 Baker Street. The thousands of letters addressed to the Conan Doyle’s fantasy now found their way to the desk of a full-time secretary employed to answer them. In 1990 a blue plaque was put up to signify 221B Baker Street as the home of Sherlock Holmes.

And typically, when a soap-opera hero is “killed off” and written out of a TV series, the relatives of the still-very-much-alive actor who played the hero receive thousands of letters of condolence.

We live in a world where the parable has become the moral of the tale. Or as it’s called in Hebrew — the mashal has become the nimshal.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehuda says that someone walking along the road whose mind is focused on learning Torah, and who willingly breaks off from his learning to remark on a beautiful tree or a beautiful field, is considered guilty of a capital offense.

What is so terrible about enjoying the natural beauty of the world that it merits such a drastic response?

Let’s understand this with a parable:

Imagine two Jewish grandmothers sitting in the park, watching their grandchildren playing in front of them on the grass. One says to the other, “Sadie. K’neine hora, your grandchildren are gorgeous!” Says the other, “That’s nothing — you should see the photographs!”

The Zohar teaches that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.

The Torah is the “grandchildren”. The world is the “photograph”. The Torah is the Moral. The world is the Parable.

On one level this was the ideological battle between the Greeks and the Jews that we commemorate on the festival of Chanukah. The Greeks believed that “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth,” as John Keats put it. In other words, the Moral and the Parable are interchangeable. The Jew says that what is true is beautiful, but what is beautiful may not necessarily be true. The Parable only has value to the extent that is serves the Moral. If the Parable serves nothing but itself it inevitably leads to decadence and moral decay.

Drive down an avenue in any major city and you’ll see how successful the Greeks were: An eight story-high billboard with a male model with carefully crafted biceps bulging from a designer T-shirt. Eight stories of T-shirt.

The wellspring of the art of Greece comes from a verse in the Torah: "May G-d broaden Yafet, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem." Thus it was that Noach blessed Yafet, his eldest son. However, the blessing of beauty comes with a condition: that Yafet will "dwell in the tents of Shem."

Yafet comes from the same root in Hebrew as yaffe, "beauty." Yafet's fourth son was Yavan. Yavan is the Hebrew name for Greece. The Jewish People are the descendants of Shem. Shem mean "name." In the Holy Tongue the name of something defines its essence. In all other languages a name is conventional but does not define essence. In the Holy Tongue the name of something expresses its essence, its connection to its spiritual root. Yafet, Beauty, Art — the ultimate Parable — finds its correct place in the scheme of things when it "dwells in the tents of Shem"; when it expresses essence, when it reveals the Moral. For when Yafet leaves the tents of Torah, when he leaves the world of essence, of Shem, and focuses on himself, then art becomes narcissistic, corrupt and corrupting.

Several key events that epitomize the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, between Shem and Yafet, take place in the months of Kislev and Tevet. The festival of Chanukah, which starts on the 25th of Kislev and finishes in the first days of Tevet, is the most conspicuous. However, a few days later, there is a day of great sadness for the Jewish People that reveals another side to the symbiotic relationship between Shem and Yafet.

On the eighth of Tevet three days of spiritual darkness descended on the world when King Ptolemy took 72 great Torah Sages, locked them in separate cubicles, and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. The lion that had been roaming free was locked in a cage. The Torah, the blueprint of all existence, was “caged” in a foreign tongue. It became just another book on a shelf. Now the nations of the world could come and say, "Oh yes, we know your Torah. We have it on the shelves of our university library. It's over there in the philosophy/religion/new age section."

What was the symbolism of putting the Sages into separate cubicles? A cubicle is like a tent. When Ptolemy the Greek took the Sages of Israel and locked them into separate cubicles it signified Shem being made to sit in the "tent" of Yafet. When the Torah was translated into Greek it was made to sit in the halls of academia, the tent of Yafet, just like any other book. Essence was made to serve form. The internal world was made the servant of the external. The world was turned upside down.

“G-d spoke to Yisrael in visions of the night…” (46:2).

Of all the challenges to Judaism, the one most connected to the darkness of night is the philosophy of the Greeks and their ideological heirs to this day.

This verse is the only place where the Torah describes a vision as a “vision of the night”. As Yaakov was about to descend into Egypt, into the matrix of all of the exiles that the Jewish People would suffer, G-d speaks to him in a vision of the night to symbolize that however dark is the exile, however upside down the world seems, however much the Parable seems to have usurped the Moral, eventually beauty will submit to Truth.

  • Sources: Hemek Davar; story heard from Rabbi Moshe Carlebach

© 1995-2024 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at [email protected] and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions

« Back to Torah Weekly

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.