Portion of the Week / The Power of Roots

In the way it is actually written in Torah scrolls, this week's portion differs from all other weekly readings.

In the way it is actually written in Torah scrolls, this week's portion differs from all other weekly readings. It is called a "closed section" (parasha stuma): Torah scribes leave no physical space before the beginning of the portion, linking it instead to the one that precedes it, Vayigash. Rashi explains this in terms of Vayigash's ending: "And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they had possessions therein, and grew, and multiplied exceedingly" (Genesis 47:27). The temporary move to Egypt, driven by economic pressure during the famine, now becomes a comfortable, permanent reality. The family has taken root in this new land and prospered; it no longer feels it is living in exile.

One midrash offers three reasons for this week's reading being a "closed" one: "We read, 'And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt' [Gen. 47:28]. Why is this the only closed parasha in the Torah? When Jacob died, Egypt's enslavement of the Jews began. Another explanation for its being closed is that, when Jacob sought to reveal the future to his children, the vision became a closed door for him. A further explanation for the portion being closed is that God hid (or closed off) all the troubles in the world from Jacob."

In the first explanation, the midrash connects Jacob's life and death with the "closing of the door" that takes place in his family. While he is alive, he links the family to its roots. But when their father dies, his children lose touch with their roots and deepen their roots in Egypt's soil: "... and they had possessions therein, and grew, and multiplied exceedingly."

The second explanation focuses on God's denial of Jacob's desire to have the future revealed. The midrash's third explanation, however, is puzzling. How is it that the midrash argues that God hides the world's sorrows from Jacob's eyes when the Torah tells us that Jacob, in his first meeting with Pharaoh, states, "... few and evil have the days of the years of my life been" (Gen. 47:9)? Perhaps the answer lies in the verse opening this week's reading: "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years: so the whole age of Jacob was a hundred-forty and seven years" (Gen. 47:28). The verse begins with vayechi (lived) and ends with vayehi (was). There is a difference between Jacob's life in Egypt, where he dwelt for 17 years, and the rest of his life, which spanned another 130 years.

Rabbi Hezekiah Hizkuni comments: "The rest of his years and his life were not life, because, during those years, he was plunged into sorrow; only when he came to Egypt did his soul find repose and enjoy a pleasant life." Apparently, Hizkuni bases himself on the verse describing Jacob's reaction to the news that Joseph is alive and living in Egypt: "the spirit of Jacob their father revived (vatechi)" (Gen. 45:27). The reality in which a bereaved person feels robbed of his life is something many modern-day Israelis are sadly familiar with. In the case of Jacob, it is only in Egypt, despite the fact that he is far from his home and roots, that he begins to live again.

'Life's source'

The closed aspect of this week's reading highlights this strange transformation. No event is as disconcerting as being forced to leave your home. Even though living in Egypt means being far away from home, Jacob manages to maintain a connection with his roots and origins. In his commentary, "Sfat emet," one of Hasidism's leaders, Rabbi Yehuda Alter, grandson of the Ger (Gur) Hasidic movement's founder, explains this phenomenon by referring to the verse, "Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham" (Micha 7:20). He writes: "Only by studying the truth can one live in Egypt. The meaning of 'life' here is close attachment to one's roots and origins, because they are life's source. Although he lived in Egypt, he knew the Egyptians were merely a shell and an obscuring of the truth."

Unlike his children, Jacob is not bedazzled by the prosperity of life in the Land of Goshen. He knows and remembers his background. We are given a hint of that awareness when he instructs Joseph shortly before his death: "and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt: But I will lie with my fathers" (Gen. 47:29-30). For Jacob, burial in the Promised Land is not just an act of kindness; it is a declaration of truth. Rashi explains that any kindness we display to the dead is "true kindness" because the dead are incapable of rewarding us. This is genuine altruism. However, this instruction also conveys Jacob's view that life in Egypt is merely an illusion. Essentially, he is telling his children: "Do not let this affluence blind you; your real roots are elsewhere." Addressing Joseph, he is actually saying, "I am asking you to do this for me not as an act of kindness, but rather as a statement of the truth in our lives; I want you to reconnect me with my home."

Throughout our history, Jews have followed Jacob's example, and many Jewish leaders have requested to be buried in the Land of Israel. Archaeological finds also offer tangible proof of the fact that many Diaspora Jews chose to be buried here. Naturally, there has also been opposition to that custom - especially from those who spent their entire lives building and settling this land. A midrash in Genesis Rabba for this week's reading tells us: "Rabbi Bar Korii and Rabbi Elazar were engaged in Torah study in the area of Tiberias' stadium, when they saw coffins being brought from abroad. Rabbi Korii said to Rabbi Elazar, 'When these people were alive, the following verse applied to them: "... but when ye entered, ye defiled my land" (Jeremiah 2:7). After their death, the following verse applies: "... and [ye] made mine heritage an abomination."'"

This is harsh criticism indeed. Rabbi Korii's message is: "During their lives overseas, Diaspora Jews lead a peaceful existence and do not share the burden of living here in the Land of Israel. Instead of living here and sanctifying the land with their bodies, they choose to defile the Land of Israel's soil with their corpses."

Despite the sharpness of that criticism, we can see the positive aspect of the custom of burial here. Since Jacob's time, the desire of Diaspora Jews to be buried in the Holy Land has served as a reminder to their families that the Diaspora will always remain the Diaspora - exile.