Exile--The Absence Of Jewish Context

The descent into Egypt and Jacob's death left his family in an alien culture, forced to find a context for their traditions within themselves.

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Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.

The parashah of Vayehi is the last parashah in Genesis. In it, Jacob blesses his sons before dying, and Joseph, before his death, promises his brothers that eventually God will remember them and take them out of Egypt and back to Israel, and asks that at that time they take his bones with them, for final burial there. Thus, the book of Genesis ends, with the stage set for the beginning of the enslavement of the next generation of Israelites.

An Interesting Opening

The parashah opens with an interesting anomaly. As you know, there is no punctuation in the Torah; the words are written as a string of letters, with no separation of any kind [only one small space appears between any two words]. The only exception is a paragraphing system. The Torah leaves spaces in between paragraphs--called parashahs--and in between the five books of the Bible.

Weekly portions always are demarcated; they begin either on a new line, or after a space large enough to have nine letters written in it. Vayehi is an exception, in that there is no space at all between the end of last week's parashah, Vayigash, and the beginning of Vayehi--the last letter of Vayigash is followed immediately by the first letter of Vayehi.

Rashi quotes two Rabbinic explanations of this unique phenomenon. "Why is this parashah 'stumah' [closed, or sealed, i.e., written immediately after the end of the preceding parashah with no space in between]? Because once Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of the Israelites were closed by the oppression of their subjugation, for it was then that they [the Egyptians] began to subjugate them.

Another explanation is that Jacob wanted to reveal the future to his sons, and it was closed to him."

This Rabbinic explanation sees the lack of empty space as a kind of pun; the word that describes this lack of empty space is 'stumah.'  Stumah also describes, in two ways, what will happen to the Jewish people by the time the parashah is over--their hearts and eyes will be sealed by the pressures of servitude, and Jacob himself will have the knowledge of the future denied--closed--to him, and he will be unable to reveal it to his children.

The pun works on a visual level as well--the parashah is called 'closed,' and also looks closed, so that the physical arrangement of the start of the parashah also stands as a kind of a symbol of the 'closedness' that will be experienced by Jacob and the Jewish people in Egypt.

The image that the pun conjures up, of the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people being closed by subjugation, is an interesting one. It paints subjugation as first and foremost and interior event, one that occurs within the person. The victim is limited, robbed of his or her ability to feel and see, that is, to relate to and interact fully with the world in which he or she lives. Jacob's inability to see the future is part of the same syndrome--in this foreign land, Jacob literally can see no future for his children, only subjugation and servitude--non-future.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.