Tag Archives: Vayechi

Remembering Newtown: We Live to Love

9-11 Flag“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

Genesis 49:33

“How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily ‘Portraits of Grief’ has been compiling the fragments of eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation and by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing is left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime.”

-Ismar Schorsch
“Portraits of Grief,” pg 180 (December 29, 2001)
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

As I write this, it is the anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As I write this, I recall reading earlier this morning that another school shooting has just taken place at a High School in Colorado, with the eighteen-year old shooter having killed himself and his fifteen-year old victim struggling for life in the hospital.

I have prayed for the victims in Newtown and I have grieved with their parents since I am both a parent and grandparent. The very idea of losing a child to a sudden and needless death is horrifying beyond imagination.

Schorsch’s commentary on the death of Jacob paints a portrait of a man who died with difficulty even as he lived. But he was also a man who had the time to prepare for death, to bless his children and grandchildren, and to be surrounded by a comforting family as he breathed his last and was “gathered to his people.”

In Judaism, there is a halakhic requirement to sit shiva or to mourn in solitude and withdrawal from the world for seven days following the death of a loved one. And on the anniversary of the loved one’s death, it is customary to observe yahrzeit by reciting the Kaddish, lighting a candle, and remembering the person who has died.

But these are not my loved ones nor am I Jewish, so what am I to do?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

Donne’s famous poem, which I learned forty years ago, reminds me that anyone’s death diminishes me because I am involved in humanity, because of my humanity and my mortality.

APTOPIX Connecticut School ShootingAccording to Schorsch’s commentary (pp 170-172), second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir’s midrash on the Creation account in Genesis was so controversial that it saw limited circulation during his lifetime. His interpretation of Genesis 1:31 where it is declared “And God saw all that he had made, and found it very good,” Rabbi Meir relates the Hebrew word “me’od” which is translated as “very” to “mot,” which is the Hebrew word for “death”.

In Christian doctrine, we believe that God introduced death into the world as a response to the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Rabbi Meir’s midrash…

…God did not inject death into the world later, as a punishment for human sin. Rather, death was part of life, for without its inescapable presence, humankind would never value or use life fully. The beauty of life flowed from its impermanence.

-Schorsch, pg 171

I’m sure this is little comfort to those who are mourning their children in this supposed season of joy. In abstract, we can philosophize that it is our mortality that defines our existence, and the shadow of death cast across our journey of life reminds us that every moment is precious.

But in reality, most people rarely consider their death until something shakes them out of apathy, such as a doctor’s dire report or the murder of a child.

There is a tremendous temptation to either sink into depressive despair or to cry out in anger and pursue the path of vengeance. We want and even need to do something, to respond in some way, either by withdrawal or violent projection, because of the senseless outrage of these deaths.

In the end, neither reaction does much good. The former honors no one and the latter is manipulated by the politicians and the media pundits to achieve their own agendas.

The only thing that makes sense to me, particularly in a universe where I acknowledge a loving, involved, and creative God, is to take the only option that remains…to love those who are left to me here and now, not just because I know they can be taken away at any moment, but because life has to be more than mere existence, pursuit of money, pleasure, and the consumable products in the latest ad campaign on television. If life isn’t the expression of love, especially to those who depend upon us for their every need (even as we all depend on God for our every need), then why were we given life in the first place?

As I write this, I mourn the loss of the young innocents, not just in Connecticut and Colorado, but everywhere, and for every person, because like God, I must be involved in humanity. It is said that when Jacob and the seventy went down into Egypt, God went with them. How He must have grieved knowing just how far down Israel’s children would descend in the following years and decades. It is said that when millions of Jews and other “undesirables” entered the Nazi camps, God entered with them and was imprisoned with them. How He must have grieved as He witnessed each individual death of the six million of His chosen little ones.

The only thing we have to keep us going in the face of death and disaster is our faith in God, that there is something more to life than what we can detect with our five senses, and that there is a greater meaning to it all. When a child dies, even great faith is shaken, for how could a loving God allow such a heinous act to occur?

But where we have faith, God has certainty of perception and knowledge. God knows. He knows the placement of each individual soul in this life and beyond. We live in a universe that is broken and under slow repair. In that universe, death occurs, injustice occurs, tragedy occurs. Tears and grief occur.

landonBut there is also hope.

I took a few days off of work last week to spend time with my grandson. We played with legos, I made him pancakes, we had “sword fights” in my snowy backyard, we went to the playground and slid down slides covered with melting ice. I dropped him off at pre-school and had the wonderful privilege of picking him up again as he ran toward me grinning and gleefully yelling, “Grandpa!”

I can’t say anything that will comfort the grieving and the dying except that if you still have someone precious in your life who needs you and who loves you, then they are the difference, the hope, and the faith that makes life more than just living day-to-day. This is what God does to open our eyes. This is what God does to open our hearts, to turn stone into beating flesh. This is why we are alive. We live to love.

Vayechi: The King’s Scepter

LionLast week I shared with you four Torah prophecies charting Jewish history: 1) that the Jewish people will be eternal though 2) we will be few in number and 3) scattered to the four corners of the earth and that 4) the host nations were ultimately inhospitable to us. This week, 2 more prophecies!

One would think, if the Jewish people were so reviled to be persecuted and killed, that we would have little impact upon those nations persecuting and killing us. Yet, the Torah prophesies that we will be…

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi

You may be wondering what this has to do with this week’s Torah portion, with the blessings Jacob confers on his children and his grandchildren and his subsequent death, or with the burial of Jacob in Canaan, or with the death of Joseph and the end of the book of Genesis. Consider the following:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his.

He tethers his ass to a vine, his ass’s foal to a choice vine; he washes his garment in wine, his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; his teeth are whiter than milk.

Genesis 49:10-12 (JPS Tanakh)

These are the blessings Jacob set upon Judah before Jacob’s death. From a Christian standpoint, we see an obvious image of the Messiah, of Jesus in this blessing.

But now we have to find the connection I’m making between Rabbi Packouz’s commentary and the Torah reading:

“I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You shall become a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. Through you all the communities of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3). The prophet Isaiah (42:6) states, “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand and keep you. And I will establish you as a covenant of the people, for a light unto the nations.”

Which, of course, reminds Christians of this:

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

John 8:12 (NASB)

Immediately after the Master said these words, the Pharisees he was speaking to objected and accused him of false testimony. These men could not have failed to recall the prophecy of Isaiah that it was Israel who was the light to the nations. How could this one man claim to be such a thing, to represent all of Israel as it were, unless he were their King?

Interestingly enough, Rabbi Packouz referenced Genesis 12:2-3 which ends with, “through you all the communities of the earth shall be blessed.” All the nations of the earth are blessed through Abraham’s seed, through Messiah (Galatians 3:16), through the light to the nations, the firstborn son of Israel.

And so Jacob passed on the blessings to his sons, including the Messianic blessing onto Judah, the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” Judah’s descendant is Messiah, the ruler, the King, the light, and as he was born into humility as Yeshua ben Yosef, he will return in power and might as Yeshua ben David, and ascend the throne of David in Jerusalem, and rule with justice and with peace over his people Israel, and over the entire population of the world.

In next week’s “Shabbat Shalom Weekly,” Rabbi Packouz will finish his series with “the final prophecy — the return from Exile — and what does it all mean.”

As you might have guessed, today’s Torah commentary is an extension of the one I wrote last week, the “cautionary tale” to the Christian Church to not take the ancient Messianic Jewish prophecies too lightly, and especially not to refactor them in such a way that favors the Gentile Christians over God’s chosen people and nation.

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”

Zechariah 8:22-23 (ESV)

up_to_jerusalemFirst Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) author and teacher Toby Janicki, in the episode Fringes of the Garment of the television series The Promise of What is to Come said that the Jewish man in question is the Messiah, as he interprets this verse.

Toby further said that those ten men from the nations were not just a random group of non-believing Gentiles, but are Gentile believers from “the Church” who, in my estimation, must recognize the Savior as the Jewish Messiah King, fully the King of Israel and the Jewish people, and that grasping his tzitzit, as it were, is a recognition of that fact, a representation of the profound paradigm shift required by Christians in order to even recognize Yeshua ben David as our “Jesus,” and the desperate attempt to heal the tremendous wound that separates Christianity from the Jewish Messiah.

If Toby’s interpretation of Zechariah is correct, and my interpretation of Toby is correct, then many in the Church today are laboring under a needless burden placed upon our shoulders by a long history of misunderstanding, anti-Semitism, and supersessionism. Much was lost after the apostolic era ended and the Gentile majority of the Messianic followers took over and reformed the “Church of Christ.” We have a lot of work to do to repair the damage and prepare the road for the return of the King.

But why wait for Messiah to return to take hold of his tzitzit? Let’s do it now by humbling ourselves before the King and studying his ways as expressed through the Jewish prophets and the Jewish apostles.

For from Zion shall come forth the Torah…

Isaiah 2:3

Salvation is from the Jews.

John 4:22

For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.

Acts 15:21

Come, let us go up to the mountain of Hashem, and to the house of the God of Jacob.

Peace and Good Shabbos.

Vayechi: Being Strong Until the End

Lion of JudahThe scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from his descendants, until the Moshiach comes . . .

Genesis 49:10

Every soul possesses a spark of the soul of Moshiach

—Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

After the passing of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch in 1772, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Horodok led a group of chassidim to settle in the Holy Land.

One day, a somewhat deluded individual climbed the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and sounded a shofar. Soon the rumor spread that Moshiach had arrived, setting off a great commotion in the street. Rabbi Mendel went to his window and sniffed the air. “No,” he said, “unfortunately, the redeemer has not yet arrived. On that day, ‘the world shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea,’ and ‘all flesh will perceive’ (Isaiah 11:9 and 40:5) the reality of the Creator. I do not sense the divine truth that will permeate the world in the era of Moshiach.”

Said the renowned mashpia, Rabbi Grunem Estherman: “Why did Rabbi Mendel need to go to the window to sniff for the presence of Moshiach? Because the all-pervading truth of G‑d was already a tangible reality within the walls of Rabbi Mendel’s room.”

-Rabbi Yanki Tauber
“Moshiach in the Air”

I know this commentary seems rather fanciful and not particularly realistic (can you smell Moshiach in the air?), but as I read it, I was reminded of how in certain corners of Christianity, the topic of the end times and the second coming are very prominent, almost to the point of obsession. It’s as if we haven’t read the Gospels in our own Bibles.

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.

Matthew 24:23-28 (ESV)

Why are we so worried about the coming Messiah? He gave us great advice about what worry is all about.

But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:30-34 (ESV)

But as I said before, it’s very difficult for us to change our thinking and to rise up out of the darkness as a light. It is very difficult to let the world be the world, to just do our best, and to have faith and trust that everything will work out according to God.

And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:7-8 (ESV)

Who is Moshiach?Is waiting and rumor a test of faith? It’s been nearly 2,000 years since the ascension and we’ve been waiting ever since. Jews cry out “Moshiach now” but Moshiach has yet to come. Rabbi Mendel said that the world will be filled with the knowledge of God before the Messiah’s coming (return) but that’s just one of many different thoughts about what must happen beforehand. We can’t be that sure of our facts. In many ways, the Bible is a mystery containing clues we struggle all our lives to interpret.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazak, “the Shabbos of reinforcement,” because of the custom of declaring, Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”) at the conclusion of the Torah reading, in acknowledgment of the completion of the Book of Genesis.

The awareness nurtured by the reading of Vayechi generates strength. When a Jew knows he has been granted a heritage of life expressed through a connection with the Torah, and that there will come a time when this connection will blossom, he will acquire the inner strength to confront the challenges presented by his environment.

By heightening the expression of this potential in our people as a whole, we hasten the coming of its fruition in the Era of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.

-Rabbi Eliyahu Touger
“True Life”
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, p. 160ff; Vol. XV, p. 422ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayechi

So Joseph and his father’s household remained in Egypt. Joseph lived one hundred and ten years. Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph’s knees. At length, Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Genesis 50:22-26 (JPS Tanakh)

chanukah-josephs-tombThe final verses of this Torah Portion and the book of Genesis find Jacob and Joseph dead and Jacob’s descendants continuing to live in Egypt. This sets the stage for the birth of Moses and the centuries of slavery of the Jewish people under a “new king who arose over Egypt and who did not know Joseph.” If Jacob understood prophesy, he must have known what was going to come after his death, just as Joseph did. True, he was reassured by God that He would go down into Egypt with Jacob and his family, and that God would bring Jacob’s descendants back out of Egypt (Genesis 46:4), and yet what a bitter thing to go to your grave knowing your children and your children’s children will suffer.

As Rabbi Touger states, at the end of this Torah portion, it is customary to declare “Chazak, Chazak, Vinischazaik (“Be strong, be strong, and may you be strengthened”).”

Where ever you are in your life and whatever your experiences are, however you anticipate your future, whether it be long or brief, you…we…all of us must be strong.

But that can be so very hard. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

God be merciful, and may Moshiach come soon and in our days. Amen.

Good Shabbos.

Vayechi: Living Forever

When the Tzemach Tzedek was a young boy, his cheder teacher taught him the verse: “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,” explaining that these were the best years of Yaakov’s life. The Tzemach Tzedek asked his grandfather, the Alter Rebbe: How was it possible that the best years of Yaakov’s life would be spent in a depraved land?

The Alter Rebbe answered him: Even before he arrived, Yaakov sent Yehudah to Egypt to establish a yeshivah. When one studies the Torah, one comes close to G-d. This closeness allows one to live with true and genuine vitality, even in Egypt. Indeed, the depravity of Egypt enhanced the vitality experienced by Yaakov. For the transformation of darkness reveals a higher quality of light. Yaakov’s establishment of Torah life amid the darkness of Egyptian society expressed the essential vitality he possessed and endowed to his children.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
In the Garden of Torah
“True Life”
Commentary for Torah Portion Vayechi
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, p. 160ff; Vol. XV, p. 422ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5751

For most of us, the idea that Jacob had established a yeshivah in Egypt prior to taking his family down into that land seems a little farfetched. About a month ago, I wrote a missive on the Rabbinization of Abraham that tried to make some sort of sense of the Talmudic writers “reinventing” ancient events in the post-Second Temple world. However, in a metaphorical and perhaps spiritual sense, I think we can understand the words I just quoted in a way that can apply to those of us who are people of faith today.

How can we say that Jacob’s last 17 years of life in the idolatrous land of Egypt were the happiest of his life? One way is to realize that for the previous two decades, Jacob thought that Joseph was dead; ripped apart and probably consumed by a wild beast. Jacob never fully recovered from this event and lived in grief and sorrow from that time on…until discovering Joseph was alive. Joseph saved his family from the continuing famine by relocating them to the rich and fertile region of Goshen in Egypt. What could Jacob desire now that his family was safe and cared for and that he was reunited with his beloved son? What more could he want now that he lived even to see and bless his grandchildren by Joseph in Egypt?

But he lived in Egypt which is usually, to put it mildly, is a “spiritual no-no.” Assuming he wasn’t studying Torah in the “tents of Shem”, so to speak, besides what I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is there any other reason Jacob should have considered his old age in Egypt as the best years of his life?

So Israel set out with all that was his, and he came to Beer-sheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God called to Israel in a vision by night: “Jacob! Jacob!” He answered, “Here.” And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” –Genesis 46:1-4

Jacob had God’s promise that he would see Joseph, which he did, that Joseph would “close his eyes”, which he did, that God would make his descendents into a great nation in Egypt, which He did, and that God would escort Israel out of Egypt and bring them back to the land of promise, which He did. Although Jacob lived his declining years in relative comfort, even if he were poor and half-starved, I still suspect they might have been his “best years” if only because of God’s promises. The exile wasn’t permanent. Even in the land of idols, God was with Israel, even in the land where his children would become slaves.

What does that say about us? If this Torah Portion can’t be applied to us, it makes an interesting study but little else. However, there are lessons we can take and use in our own lives as we work, play, marry, raise families, and grow old within the context of a fallen world, surrounded by the idols of our society. We have God’s promises, too.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. –Romans 8:1-4

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. –Ephesians 2:1-7

Pouring waterRabbi Touger’s commentary says something more to us.

True life can be ascribed only to G-d, as it is written: “And G-d your L-rd is true; He is the living G-d.” Just as Truth is uninterrupted and unchanging, so too life is in essence unchanging and eternal. Thus our Sages describe a stream as “living water” only when it flows constantly.

On the last day of the festival of Sukkot, the Master declared that he is the living water (John 7:37-41) and thus our “true life” is in him. We also know that no one who has perished trusting God has actually died, for God is a God of the living (Luke 20:38). Rabbi Touger also tells us this.

The above enables us to understand why the Torah reading is named Vayechi “And he lived” although it speaks of Yaakov’s death. As the events of the reading demonstrate, Yaakov’s life was one of connection to G-d that transcended material settings. And since he shared this quality with his descendants, it was perpetuated beyond his mortal lifetime. As our Sages say: “Yaakov, our ancestor, did not die. As his descendants are alive, he is alive.”

We also know that our “Egypt”, just as Jacob’s, is not forever.

Therefore, Yaakov called his sons together with the intent of revealing the time of the Redemption to them. He assured them that they would be redeemed from Egypt, promising: “G-d will be with you, and He will bring you back to your ancestral land.” For it is in Eretz Yisrael and more particularly, in the Eretz Yisrael of the Redemption that Yaakov and his descendants will truly flourish.

We have that promise as well.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” –Revelation 21:1-5

Regardless of where we live, how we live, our day-to-day circumstances, our fears, our mistakes, our illnesses, and our woes, we are His if we know our God and trust in Him. The promises come to us from the Master, the Savior, the Messiah, the Son of God so that we can be reconciled and also be considered sons and daughters of the Most High. If we allow our souls to sail upon the winds of hope, we too will never die because God lives forever.

To one whose self is his body, death of the body is death of the self. But for one whose self is his love, awe and faith, there is no death, only a passing. From a state of confinement in the body, he makes the passage to liberation. He continues to work within this world, and even more so than before.

The Talmud says that Jacob, our father, never died. Moses, also, never died. Neither did Rabbi Judah the Prince. They were very high souls who were one with Truth in an ultimate bond—and since Truth can never die, neither could they.

Yes, in our eyes we see death. A body is buried in the ground, and we must mourn the loss. But this is only part of the falseness of our world. In the World of Truth, they are still here as before.

And the proof: We are still here. For if these high souls would not be with us in our world, all that we know would cease to exist.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“High Souls”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Transform darkness into light. Good Shabbos.