Parashat Vayehi 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
by Cantor Sandy Horowitz (’14)

With Parashat Vayehi we come to the end of the book of Genesis, the completion of a series of individual narratives including those of our matriarchs and patriarchs.

Let us imagine for a moment that Genesis and the following book of Exodus are two parts of a movie, each with its own musical soundtrack. Genesis ends on a happy note as Jacob is buried in the family plot at Makhpela in Canaan, surrounded by his family — grand-finale-type music, or perhaps a mellow, sweet melody. Camera pans out. Suddenly, the tone of the movie score alters dramatically as the Exodus narrative begins — a sinister motif suggesting the portent of things to come, the slavery of our people at the hands of a paranoid and cruel pharaoh. There’s trouble ahead!

Pause. We’re not ready to move forward yet. High-speed rewind. Let’s take another look at that Genesis happy ending, for Parashat Vayehi is actually neither happy nor an ending.

In Vayehi Jacob’s burial scene is preceded by the final words spoken by the dying Jacob to his sons, which can hardly be viewed as the blessings of a loving father. He calls his eldest, Reuben, “Unstable as water, you shall not excel…”; to Simeon and Levi he declares, “Instruments of cruelty are [your] swords” and continues from there (Genesis 49:4-5). Later, after Joseph and his brothers have buried their father, we see that the brothers continue to be plagued by guilt over their past mistreatment of Joseph, suggesting further flaws in the reconciliation theme: “Joseph will perhaps hate us, and will certainly pay us back for all the evil which we did to him…”(Genesis 50:15).  Perhaps the end-of-Genesis music is not so sweet and happy after all; rather more complex musical themes must be intertwined with one another, to better reflect the text.

Neither happy nor an ending. In a literal sense, although the physical lives of Jacob’s sons come to end, their names live on as the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, and will continue to be invoked as such throughout the biblical narrative.

The names of the patriarchs will also continue to be invoked as the story of our biblical ancestors unfolds. What’s more, to this day we recite their names (and for many of us, the matriarchs as well) each time we pray the first blessing of the Amidah. This is a gift, a miracle that allows us to bridge the gap between our own personal ancestors and those of our tradition. I can name my parents of blessed memory; I can barely name my grandparents who came from Eastern Europe and whose stories remain largely untold. My personal narrative ends there as I look back in time; anything before that is a vast unknown. To be reminded that I am also the daughter of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob serves as a profound spiritual anchor, linking their stories with mine.

As we leave Genesis and prepare to enter the Exodus narrative, we know that the soon-to-be enslaved Israelites will need to re-learn the stories of their ancestry once they become free. It won’t be the last time that the Jewish people lose sight of, and then regain, the spiritual connection with our past. As the Genesis narratives come to an end for another year, our continued recitation of the names of the ancestors keeps them alive through our collective memory. Hazak Hazak v’nit-hazek!
Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the Cantor/Educator of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ. She received ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in 2014.