Thursday, December 16, 2010

Vayechi

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, is the final portion in Genesis.  Two death scenes are recorded in this week’s portion.  Both are framed by journeys.  The final act in the Joseph saga begins.  The aged patriarch Jacob summons his son Joseph to his bedside and says, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” (Genesis 47:29-10)

After Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh he offers a unique blessing to each of his sons.  He then breathes his last breath and is gathered to his people.  “Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” (Genesis 50:1)  Jacob is mourned for 70 days and then Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to travel to the land of Israel to bury his father.  Joseph and his brothers, as well as many of the leaders of Egypt, travel to Hebron to bury Jacob alongside Abraham and Isaac, Sarah, Rebekah and Leah.   Before crossing the Jordan they observe another mourning period, this time for seven days.

It was of course a lengthy journey from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.  The Torah notes the journey but records nothing of the conversations that must have occurred.  What did the brothers say to each other as they traveled to bury their father?  What did the Egyptians say to each other about the Jewish customs they observed?  What did Joseph say to his sons Ephraim and Manasseh about the land to which they were journeying?

It is curious that Genesis provides little detail about the journeys it records.  The majority of the Torah is of course about a journey from Egypt to the land of Israel.  The remainder of the Torah details discussions and arguments, successes and failures.  Yet in our Torah portion the most important journey, the one that presages the Jewish people’s defining journey, is reported only with its beginning and end points.  Why?

I have often wondered what family members say to each other as they drive from funeral home to cemetery.  It seems to me among the more difficult steps in an extraordinarily difficult day.  The journey, between the obligations of funeral and burial, seems particularly wrenching.  What do siblings, living apart for so many years but thrust together by grief, say to each other in the car ride?  What can parents say to a child grieving for a beloved grandparent as they mourn for their own parent?  

I remember in particular my grandfather’s funeral procession.  There were few words.  I looked out the window and listened to my father’s cries.  I remember my mother’s words of reassurance to my brother and me.  The procession took a detour so that it might drive by my grandfather’s shul.  On that cold December day, the doors of the synagogue were opened in a gesture of respect.  A number of men, friends of my grandfather, stood beside the doors.

I turned to my parents, “Why?”  There were only tears. There were no fitting words. It is perhaps for similar reasons that the tradition requires no words to recite before lighting the yahrtzeit candle.  On such journeys it is often impossible to find adequate words.
 
For Jacob the funeral procession concludes with no words, but with all of his children reunited in a final act of burying him in his ancestral home.  For Joseph the procession is delayed.   It will not be until the Israelites are freed from Egypt that Moses takes with him Joseph’s bones.  The Israelites tend to their packing and make ready for the journey.  Moses on the other hand fulfills a nearly forgotten vow, made to his forefathers hundreds of years before, and carries Joseph's bones out of Egypt.  “Why?” the Israelites might have asked.

There was only silence.  There are times when that is the only and best response.  And there are times like Moses and Joseph before him, when are hands become our prayers.

To read the Torah portion online follow this link.

1 comment:

marc said...

1 Kings 19:11-13: “And God was in the still small voice.”
In silence there is the greatest power but silence is usually crowded out from our awareness by our hectic movements and loud activities. When we remain very still and quiet it is easier to feel and look into another silence.

Psalms 23:4 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
The way that I see it, the emphasis in this part of the passage is on the word “through”: When we find ourselves in bad times or when seriously inflicted with fear we are not meant to kvetch and dwell in the valley of the shadow of death; rather, we are meant to keep going, to move through it, to strive and to overcome.

Zohar, Genesis: “God is concealed from our minds, but revealed in our hearts.”
There are mysteries that our reason cannot adequately deal with- pain, death, and ecstasy. It is faith that leads us through these mysteries.