Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Vayechi – D’var Torah

In Genesis on December 29, 2010 at 1:19 am

This D’var Torah was given at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY, on Saturday morning, December 18.

Let’s talk, for a minute, about the weather. It’s gotten cold around here, hasn’t it? Cold, and there’s a lot of snow. You know, I think we have a unique perspective on Torah, and Genesis in particular, living in a place with such dramatic changes in season.

Genesis is the Autumn book. Fresh from the renewal of the High Holidays, we look forward to another year, as Genesis looks forward to the ongoing creation of the world from the void. Summer flowers are replaced by young Fall blossoms which grow up, grow old, and wilt, as do our forebears in lockstep with the changing season. The world is vibrant with the cycle of life. Hope is Time’s bride, and we look towards the future.

And then, Winter comes. Exodus is begun. And our exile from the warm weather begins.

How distant Reuben must feel when Jacob says “unstable as water, you shall excel no longer”, or “you are unreliable! You will not lead the children of Israel.” How cut off Simeon and Levi must feel when Jacob says “Unto their assembly let my glory not be united”, or “You have embarrassed me! You have disgraced me! I will not be remembered through you.” How indifferent Jacob’s other sons may feel to Jacob’s comparably neutral blessings for them. “Every one according to his blessing.”

They may have said “wow, we got off easy…but what about Judah and Joseph?”

Exile blesses and illuminates as well as tests. Judah is told “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah” and “thee shall thy brethren praise.” Judah takes the lead and saves Joseph from his brothers, suggesting exile. His brothers listen to him. Judah takes the lead. Remember this. Joseph is told “But his bow abode firm, and the arms of his hands were made supple” and “The blessings of thy father shall be on the head of Joseph”, or “You will be fine, and you will do well.” Joseph remains loyal to God in exile, and saves many people from starvation by his efforts. His brothers are among those saved. Ironically, they sent him there.

What does this all mean? King David, in the Haftorah, helps us out. David, like Jacob, blesses his sons before dying, “every one according to his blessing.” The prophet focuses on Solomon. He tells Solomon “Be thou strong therefore, and show thyself a man.” This is a key to the parsha.

What does it mean to “be strong, and be a man”? Not killing your brother might be a good start. But I think the parsha is quite clear. Reuben is called “unstable as water.” In the past few weeks, we see Reuben trying to save Joseph by wild schemes, tricking his brothers into leaving Joseph in a pit so he can return later and “save” him. When Jacob worries for Benjamin’s safety in Egypt, Reuben brashly tells Jacob to kill his own sons for Benjamin and Joseph. The Hertz chumash tells us the Hebrew word for “unstable”, pachaz, means “recklessness.” What can we take from this? How about, be steadfast? Maybe, don’t be reckless? Simeon and Levi are accused of “maiming oxen.” A few weeks ago, they convinced the men of Shechem to circumcise themselves. “Cursed be their anger.” Simeon and Levi promptly attack and kill them while they are in pain. How about, deal honestly? Uphold honor? Don’t be cruel? Pursue justice?

Actions of merit beget rewards of merit, and dishonorable actions earn dishonorable rewards. These are the blessings of Joseph and Judah, and these are the blessings of Reuben, Simeon and Levi. “Every one according to his blessing.” Or, as the JPS translation tells us, “to each a parting word appropriate to him.” The message, then, is simple: Be upright, steadfast, and honorable. Be gentle, honest, and just. Leadership must reflect merit. Know who you are. We are Jews, not Reubs.

I wonder if this is why the Hebrew words for Jew and Judah are so similar?

So what’s in store for us next? Jacob is buried. We are Israel. It is Winter; the exile has begun. Exodus begins again (though not anew!) (or “continues”) tomorrow, and we meet Moses in Egypt. What does this mean for us? Tie your shoes. Rest well. Drive safely. Be gentle, steadfast and just, and we will make it through Exodus to see the promise of Spring.

Good Shabbos.

  1. A wonderfull vort from a maggid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: