Parashat Vayechi: Yours to Explore

In a farewell Portion of the Week column, Yair Caspi dares readers to embark on an independent, liberating journey through the Bible.

A painting by Guercino, depicting Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh, pre 1966.
Wikimedia Commons

Reading of the weekly Torah portion is to take a journey that can liberate us from three tyrants.

The first, the secular tyrant, claims sovereignty over his own life, refusing to consider a reading that has another sovereign.

The second, the academic tyrant, receives qualified permission from the first to interpret the biblical text, as long as it is defined as no more than a text. A text that can be subjected to historical, philological, philosophical or literary inquiry, but in which we must not discover God, because such a discovery could undermine our status as the world’s lone sovereign. Academics are permitted to entertain readers with anecdotes from their research, but they must never suggest that there is an obligation springing from the text that readers are avoiding, or that they are pursuing idol worship that could destroy them.

The third is the religious tyrant – not necessarily the ultra-Orthodox Jew or the fanatical settler. Even the enlightened religious tyrant is sometimes a very old Jew. He naturally sees no problem in returning God to his central status in the biblical narrative, but only conditionally: We must encounter God only through traditional biblical commentators who will tell us what the narrative says and what we may not discover in the text. The religiosuo tyrant prohibits us from revealing that there is only a loose connection – and sometimes no connection at all – between a set of customs devised in the Diaspora and known as halakha (Jewish religious law), and the commandments determined by the biblical God. Or that the understanding of our mission in the eyes of the biblical God includes functions which leaders of religious Jewry rule out. For instance, establishment of a model society that internalizes the accomplishments of Western culture and eliminates its ills.

If you dare to embark on an independent, liberating journey in the Bible, you will suddenly find yourself, when reading the weekly portion, surrounded by the three tyrants mentioned above. They will admonish you, claiming there is no basis for your feelings and thoughts – because you are not up-to-date on recent scientific research. Or, because you are unfamiliar with what one sage had to say about the weekly portion’s subject. If you overcome the academic and religious gatekeepers, the secular gatekeeper will jump up, accusing you of being part of a religious conspiracy to take over the country.o take over the country.

Nonetheless, if you learn to disregard the admonitions of these gatekeepers, you will find what you are seeking in your journey. Naturally, you will pay a price. The gatekeeepers are the majority, in the universities, the yeshivas or even the cafes of Tel Aviv. They will tell you that you are unfamiliar with the commentators or the research, or that you are a missionary.

On this journey, you must be prepared to be on your own. Like Abraham, who says goodbye to worlds he has known all his life. Like Joseph, who finds in Egypt a god he could not find in Canaan. Or like the earliest Zionist pioneers, about whom there was a consensus among most Jews – Enlightenment Jews, Orthodox and Reform Jews, and socialists – who argued that the Zionists did not represent a historical truth, that they had no right to declare the end of the exile, that their efforts would produce nothing. After all, the pioneers were a negligible minority.

The significant part of Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) is the blessings Jacob bestows on his children. Over the last few decades, a strange approach has emerged in the parenting world. According to this approach, good parents are facilitators who meet their children’s needs, listen to their dreams and ambitions, and only impose limits if the rights of the Other are endangered).

The elderly Jacob, parting from his children, reminds us of an important, forgotten element in parenting: Parents are crucial interpreters of their children’s abilities and mission. Jacob blesses – challenges – his children, giving them strength for the future: “Judah, thee shall thy brethren praise; thy hand shall be on the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s sons shall bow down before thee” (Gen. 49:8); “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea” (Gen. 49:13); “Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words” (Gen. 49:21). Jacob also curses some of them: “Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship” (Gen. 49:5); “Issachar is a large-boned ass” (Gen. 49:14).

The blatant discrimination with which Jacob relates to his offspring may also explain the evil impulse that arose in them all those years ago, when they tried to remedy their situation by getting rid of Joseph, the favorite son.

Liberated readers of the Bible consider themselves equals of sages, prophets, rabbinical authorities and the nation’s founders. These readers can learn from all of these teachers lessons not taught anywhere else, but they also have the right to comment on their teachers’ conduct. These free readers’ authority is unique – earned by those privileged to participate in the Return to Zion, who assume responsibility for restoring biblical tools to working order. They are high priests in a temple that has no need for a mountain. This author, who is saying goodbye to his readers with this final portion of Genesis, wants to bless them, reminding them that they have the permission and the authority to read the weekly portion on their own, to discover its eternal elements, alongside those that were of value during the period in which they were written, to once again hear a lost voice that causes trembling. May they be filled with awe, lose their familiar self and find their unique mission.