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Parashat Va-Yehi

January 2, 2015

Parashat Va-Yehi
Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

Many people associate this week’s parashah with endings. Much of the parashah consists of Jacob’s final testament to his children, and next week we no longer read about the trials and tribulations of Abraham’s descendants, but rather of the rise of Moses as a leader and the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. Despite this emphasis on the end of an era, an interpretation found in the Talmud understands a verse found at the beginning of this week’s parashah as a sign of beginning.

Until Abraham there was no such thing as [the sign of] old age. Whoever saw Abraham thought, “This is Isaac.” Whoever saw Isaac thought, “This is Abraham.” Abraham prayed for mercy so that he might have [signs of] old age, as it is said, “And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age” (Gen. 24:1). Until the time of Jacob there was no such thing as illness, so he prayed for mercy and illness came about, as it is written, “And someone told Joseph, behold, your father is sick: (Gen. 48:1). “Until the time of Elisha, no one who was sick ever got well. Elisha came along and prayed for mercy and got well, as it is written, “Now Elisha had fallen sick of the illness of which he died” (2 Kings 13:14) [Sanhedrin 107b; Bava Metzia 87a]

I would like to point out two things about this source. The first is the reminder that there is always a first time. Before Abraham there was no direct reference to old age, and before Jacob there was no reference to illness. “Until the time of Jacob there was no such thing as illness.” 

The second thing that I would like to draw our attention to is the power of words. This source understands there to be a connection between how we speak and the reality of our experience in this world. “Until the time of Jacob there was no such thing as illness, so he prayed for mercy and illness came about…” I do not think that we have to understand this to be related only to prayer. How we speak not only about ourselves but also about those around us in a sense creates our reality. 

While we do need words to describe what we experience, we have to be careful not to let  these words limit our experiences, and perhaps more importantly, we cannot allow them to limit the way that we interact with other people. All too often we allow words to decide for us what we think about a person, preventing us from experiencing the full personhood of those around us.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.