Vayechi – Knowing the Future, or Knowing Ourselves
At 147 years old and after 17 years of living in Egypt with his beloved long-lost son Yosef, Yaakov is on his deathbed. He summons all of his sons, as well as Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. To each of them, as his last words to them, Yaakov grants a special message. Most of these involve a particular symbol representing something about the individual, such as:
- Yehudah: A lion cub, symbolizing leadership and royalty
- Zevulun: A ship, representing commerce and prosperity
- Dan: A viper, biting the heels of his enemies
- Asher: Rich bread, symbolizing wealth and luxury
- Naftali: A deer, representing freedom and beauty
- Yosef: A wild donkey, a strong survivor of adversity
- Binyamin: A ravenous wolf, bravely confronting enemies
What was Yaakov trying to teach his sons by speaking them this way in these last moments of his life?
Right before this perek, Yaakov is visited by Yosef, who brings his sons Ephraim and Menashe. Yaakov gives his grandsons special blessings and elevates them to being tribes of Israel like their uncles. We learn Ephraim and Menashe were the only grandsons to receive this honor because they were born into the exile of Egyptian society but stayed true to their Jewish identity. This is also a reason why Jewish parents bless their children on Friday nights to be like Ephraim and Menashe, as well as like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. Each of these Jewish ancestors was born outside of a culture or home devoted to God. When we bless our children with the names of these Jewish heroes, we are blessing them to be true to their Jewish identities no matter where they are.
After blessing Yosef’s sons, Yaakov summons the rest of his sons and says “Gather around and I will tell you what will happen in the days to come.” He was about to tell them about their future in Egypt, which he saw through ruach hakodesh, or Divine inspiration. But then, strangely, he doesn’t tell them! Rashi explains that God took Yaakov’s Ruach Hakodesh at just that moment moment (why this could be is the subject of an entire different drasha!). So instead, Yaakov speaks to his sons not about what will be, but about who they are. He knows, just like with Ephraim and Menashe, that the key to surviving their future in Egypt would be staying true to their identity. And miraculously, the brothers succeeded in maintaining these identities through the long period of slavery and the exodus from Egypt, where the symbols associated with each message came to represent the 12 Tribes of Israel they became.
We can’t know the future. But we can try to know ourselves, be true to who we are, and bring out the strengths God has given us to help make a better world, for our tribe and all tribes. Shabbat Shalom.
Questions for the Shabbat Table
- Is there a symbol or animal that you feel drawn to? Why do you feel it represents who you are?
- If you were going someplace (maybe like camp!) where you didn’t know anyone else, what would you try to do to stay true to yourself?
Mitzvah of the Week
Think of a mitzvah that best represents the symbol/animal you chose. For example, if you chose “water,” have extra kavanah when making a bracha over water, or get water for a friend who is thirsty. Whatever symbol and mitzvah this week, do that mitzvah this week!