Closing the book of Bereshit, saying Yes to God.

 Rabbi Philip Weintraub

January 2, 2021


Congregation B’nai Israel

After almost a decade in the full time rabbinate (with another few years serving almost full time whilst studying) I remain amazed at how often the events of the parsha line up with the events of the year.  Whether you see that as spectacular coincidence or Divine foresight, it is amazing to complete the book of Bereshit, to finish Genesis and begin Shemot at the transition of the secular year.  In our Parsha, Vayechi, and Jacob lived, we see the conclusion of the lives of Jacob and Joseph.  Each offers blessings to their families and requests that their physical bodies be returned to their true home, to the land of Israel.  Both acknowledge that while their time in Egypt, in the diaspora, in the galut, was extensive, that ultimately their home is Israel.

In Bereshit 49 we hear:

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶל־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הֵאָֽסְפוּ֙ וְאַגִּ֣ידָה לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־יִקְרָ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּאַחֲרִ֥ית הַיָּמִֽים׃ 

And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.

Tribe by tribe, son by son, he offers words of blessing and challenge.  In this moment, he does an honest accounting, sometimes perhaps too honest, of the strengths and weaknesses of each tribe.  He projects forward to the future, recognizing where leadership will be found and where challenges will arise.  He looks to strengthen them, to help them see what they can accomplish, what they will accomplish, if they are honest with themselves, if they make the effort required.

In our own lives, this time of year many people make resolutions.  The challenge is that few individuals actually keep them! For fitness related resolutions, studies suggest that they last all of two weeks.  Rather than trying to fundamentally change, we might be better off making small, incremental adjustments to our lives and routines, giving us a better chance of meeting and exceeding our goals.  For me, I am trying to integrate my bicycling into more aspects of my life.  As such, I am inviting you to ride with me.  If we can talk about the issues that matter AND exercise, we are more likely to follow through!

This week’s parsha is more than just a reminder of blessings or goals.  Instead, it asks us who we really are.  What is fundamental to our souls and our selves?    

There is a beautiful midrash in Devarim Rabbah about this moment.  It looks at the words here and the words of Shema: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad:

דָּבָר אַחֵר, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

מֵהֵיכָן זָכוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לִקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע, 

מִשָּׁעָה שֶׁנָּטָה יַעֲקֹב לְמִיתָה קָרָא לְכָל הַשְּׁבָטִים וְאָמַר לָהֶן שֶׁמָּא מִשֶּׁאֲנִי נִפְטַר מִן הָעוֹלָם אַתֶּם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לֵאלוֹהַּ אַחֵר, 

מִנַּיִן, שֶׁכָּךְ כְּתִיב (בראשית מט, ב): הִקָּבְצוּ וְשִׁמְעוּ בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב וגו', מַהוּ (בראשית מט, ב): 

וְשִׁמְעוּ אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲבִיכֶם, אָמַר לָהֶן, אֵל יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲבִיכֶם הוּא. אָמְרוּ לוֹ, שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר בִּלְחִישָׁה בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. 

אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי וּמַה יִּשְׂרָאֵל אוֹמְרִים עַכְשָׁו, שְׁמַע אָבִינוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל אוֹתוֹ הַדָּבָר שֶׁצִּוִּיתָנוּ נוֹהֵג בָּנוּ ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד.

"Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Whence did Israel merit to recite the Sh'ma? 

When Jacob was about to die he called together all the tribes and he said to them:"[I am anxious] lest you bow down to another God after I have departed this world." 

From whence do we know this? For so it is written, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob" (Genesis 49:2). What is the force of the phrase, "Hearken to Israel your father" (Genesis 49:2)? 

Jacob said to them: "The God of Israel is your Father." They replied: "Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone." And he added softly, "Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever."

Rabbi Levi said: And what do Israel imply when they now say, ["Hear, O Israel"]? Hear, our father Israel, what you have commanded us we still adhere to: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.

(D'varim Rabbah 2:35, adapted from Midrash Rabbah , vol. 7, trans. J. Rabbinowitz [London: Soncino Press], 1983, p. 64).

When he offers them blessings, Jacob is really asking his children fundamental questions.  Who are we?  What are we doing here? Will you hold fast to the faith of your ancestors?

The answer from his children is clearly affirmative.  What is our answer today?  In a world of unlimited choice, of pandemic and possibilities, how do we answer Jacob’s challenge?  When we say Shema, are we acknowledging this challenge and blessing?

I have spoken previously about my love for our daily minyan.  Pre-pandemic, I loved the bagels and scotch as much as the minyan part.  Now having a daily reminder of humanity, of our connections, of God has become even more vital.  If you are not a minyannaire, perhaps this will be your year?  This is your invitation to join us for a few minutes a day in the morning, the evening or both.  Wrapping yourself in tallit and tefillin, opening the prayer book and affirming the blessing of life is incredibly powerful.  The daily reminder of the blessings in our lives is vital to our health, happiness, and wellbeing.  Praying together brings those blessings to the forefront.  Seeing one another, we share the blessings and challenges of life and are regularly greeted with humor and love.  As we closed one secular year and opened another, I expressed to them my appreciation for their companionship this year.  In a time of so much change, having the continuity of prayer and humanity was vital to my sanity.  Perhaps the same will be true for you!

Like every other, the year to come will find us with new challenges and opportunities.  We will walk those paths together.  As we welcome 2021, I invite you to continue to say yes to Jacob. Say yes to God.  Say yes to Torah.  Say yes to CBI!