I’ve always been something of a post-modernist, fascinated particularly with the ways in which form and content intersect, interact, support and destabilize each other. Blame it on an early obsession with Stephen Sondheim from an early age. (Yes, folks, that link is a peek into dlevy’s early high school adventures on the internet. But I digress.)
With that in mind, I find it particularly delightful to encounter parshat Vayechi during the week that our secular calendar advances a page. You see, the content of this week’s Torah reading involves Jacob putting his affairs in order at the end of his life, bestowing blessings on his sons (but not his daughter) and two grandsons (you can guess whose progeny they are) before shuffling off this mortal coil. But the form — oh, the form! First we’ll notice that this is the final nugget of Sefer Bereshit (aka Genesis, not the Peter Gabriel/Phil Collins band), the first book of the Torah. When this story ends, we get a flash forward to everybody’s favorite
Easter Passover story, The Ten Commandments Sefer Shemot (aka The Book of Exodus, no not the Leon Uris one). That’s a new book – same scroll, but with a nice big, clear differentiation in the text. Plus, we divide our reading up so that we don’t get into that story until next week. And in case anyone wasn’t sure, we’ll all leap to our feet on Saturday morning and sing “חזק חזק ונתחזק” to punctuate the end of our current book. So between the end of the patriarchal era (ha! as if!), the end of the book of Genesis, and the rhythm of our Torah reading that keeps us from reading the next chapter until (at the very least) later on in the afternoon, we’ve got a nice, tidy ending to our story.
But… and this is a big but… the beginning of the parasha is not nearly so tidy. In fact, this parasha is unlike every other in the Torah in that it does not commence at a typographical break in the text. (Can we call it typographical if it’s hand-written? Maybe one of our resident soferot will chime in with the answer in our comments section.) Anyhoo, if you’ve ever seen a sefer Torah in the flesh (no pun intended), you might have noticed the פתוחות and סתומות (click on the links for an illustration if you’re unfamiliar with the terms). Every other parasha begins at the start of a section marked by a פ or a ס (as we abbreviate them in the biz). Not Vayechi.
Our commentators have noticed this oddity and looked for answers. Rashbam noted that the previous parasha would have ended on a verse implying “that all the land of Egypt belong to Pharaoh,” which is sort of a negative (and, as we see by the current end of that parasha, inaccurate) idea, so we tacked on the bit about Israel taking possession of Goshen. A more contemporary source, Rabbi Meir Yehiel of Ostrovitze, characterizes the lack of a break as marking this parasha “on the borderline between the past and the future.” He explains:
Here, the Jews were in a type of a limbo, far away from the beginnings of their people and from their future redemption as well. There were thus no signs to indicate to them where they were going, and the uncertainty is reflected in the absence of a real break, in the “seal” between the two weekly parshiyot. (as quoted in Torah Gems by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
Right now, we can all feel this liminality. On a mundane level, we are in the transitional space between an old (secular) year and a new one. Some would say between an old decade and a new, while others would argue that those people are counting wrong. Regardless, we seem to agree that 2009 should get a do-over.
On a slightly more philosophical level, we are living in a time of great change. The revolution sparked by the invention of printing took several centuries, while the current digital revolution is taking root in a matter of decades. We argue over and over again in this blog about how the Jewish institutions of the past (from newspapers to synagogues to movements) don’t meet the needs of as many people as they once did. Who knows what further changes are to come?
But what I take from this parasha is not a feeling of uncertainty. After all, this section lacks a clear beginning, not a clear ending, and Jacob’s messages to his family look toward the future. Rather, when I read Vayechi I feel a charge to go forth and do. Vayechi tells us to make the most of our lives in Goshen, and work towards a time when we can all be like Ephraim and Manasseh. It is in this parasha that Jacob decrees that future generations will bless each other in their names, and our rabbis say this was because they were the quintessential liminal Jews. Ephraim and Manasseh were the first generation to grapple with the balance between their own century’s equivalents to Yiddishkeit and modernity, setting the example for us today. But wait — the Torah doesn’t actually show us their example. We only know from rabbinic writing that these two supposedly lived their lives as good Jews in Egyptian society. But it’s up to us to figure out what that meant then, and more importantly, what that might mean today or better yet, tomorrow.