Judaism: Vayechi:An Unexpected Break
“Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; and the days of Jacob – the years of his life – were one hundred and forty-seven years” (Genesis 47:28).
When G-d gave the Torah to Moshe, He divided it into parashot s’tumot (closed divisions) and parashot p’tuchot (open divisions). A closed division is a break in the text of the Sefer Torah of at least nine letters’ length, with the text continuing on the same line (Rambam, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:10; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, Laws of Tefillin 32:36; Yoreh De’ah, Laws of Sefer Torah 275:2); hence the line is “closed” by the continued text. (In most printed chumashim, this break is indicated by the letter samech for s’tumah [“closed”].) An open division is one in which the text continues on the next line; hence the line is “open”. (In most printed chumashim, this break is indicated by the letter peh for p’tuchah [“open”].)
The Torah contains 290 parashiot petuchot and 379 parashiot setumot (Rambam, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 8:4), for a total of 669 parashot.
Although “Moshe established for Israel that they would read from the Torah on Shabbat” (Sofrim 10:1), these readings were not standardised until the late Second Temple era. When the Rabbis divided up the Torah into fifty-four weekly readings, they finished each weekly reading (colloquially called a “parashah”, but technically accurately called a “sidrah”) either at closed division or an open division.
(When the weekly sidrah ends with an open division, then most printed chumashim indicate this with the letter peh written three times. When the sidrah ends with a closed division, then most printed chumashim indicate this with the letter samech written three times.)
But there is one exception to this rule: Vayechi begins in the middle of a parashah. For some reason, the rabbis decreed that this Sidrah, alone in the Torah, begins where there is no break in the text of the Torah.
The Midrash addresses this anomaly: “Why is this Parashah, alone of all the parashiot in the Torah, closed? [I.e. why does it not begin where there is a break in the text?] – Because when Jacob our father passed away, Egypt’s enslavement of Israel began. Another explanation for its being closed: Because Jacob our father wanted to reveal the time of Redemption to his sons, but it was ‘closed’ [i.e. concealed] from him . Another explanation for its being closed: Because all the sufferings in the world were closed off from Jacob” (Bereishit Rabbah 96:1).
The first of these three explanations seems puzzling: what connexion is there between Egypt’s enslavement of Israel and the parashah being closed? – To understand this, we turn to Rashi’s paraphrase of this Midrash (in his commentary to Genesis 47:28): “… when Jacob our father passed away, Israel’s eyes and hearts were closed because of the misery of the slavery with which [the Egyptians] oppressed them…”. Because their eyes and hearts were closed, this parashah is also “closed”.
The Midrashic commentator Maharz”u (Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, Grodno and Vilna, died 1862) notes that this Midrash raises another question: “This demands study, because Jacob’s death is at the end of the Sidrah , and this ‘closed’ section should have been juxtaposed to his death, not to his life. And there are many parashiot, both open and closed, which come in between”.
And Maharz”u then proceeds to answer this question: “The Rabbis determined all the weekly sidrahs to begin at either an open or a closed parashah, and the only exception is Vayechi which does not begin at a break.
“The Midrash gives three reasons for this.
“The first reason is Egyptian enslavement, which is introduced with the words ‘Jacob lived…’, meaning that after Jacob had lived for seventeen years and reached the age of 147 and his death was approaching, then the fear of Egyptian exile fell upon his descendants. And indeed the Zohar on this Sidrah says that the enslavement did not begin until all seventy who had come down to Egypt had died, which the Midrash in Shmot Rabbah 1:4 and 1:8 also says.
“The second reason is…that [Jacob] intended to reveal the time of Redemption to them when his time to die approached, and the closed section alludes to this.
“And the third reason is that sufferings were closed off from Jacob. This means that in the Land of Canaan he was open to sufferings, but in Egypt they were closed off, as the Zohar says.
“Now according to the first two reasons, it would have been more appropriate for the closed parashah to have been either, ‘And Jacob called his sons and said: Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days…’ (Genesis 49:1), or else, ‘Jacob…expired and was gathered unto his people’ (v. 33). Only according to the third reason was it appropriate for ‘Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…’ to be the closed parashah”.
Maharz”u seems to be implying here that the opening words of Vayechi – “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years” – are already the beginning of the end. Indeed, not much happened to him in those years; certainly nothing is recorded in the Torah to show for that time. The Torah describes Jacob’s reunification with Joseph (Genesis 46:29-30) and Jacob’s meeting with Pharaoh (47:7-10) at the beginning of that period, and then his charge to Joseph (47:29-31) and his blessings to his sons and grandsons (48:2-49:33) at the end, but otherwise, that entire 17-year period is a blank.
The best thing, then, about Jacob’s 17-year sojourn in Egypt was that it delayed the onset of oppression for 17 years. The oppression was destined in any event to end 400 years to the day after Isaac was born, 210 years after Jacob came down to Egypt, so every day of delay was a day of suffering spared.
The Siftei Chachamim (super-commentary on Rashi written by Rabbi Shabbetai ben Yosef Bass, 1641-1718), commenting on the first Rashi in Vayechi, explains: “They were not yet actually enslaved [as soon as Jacob died]; however they already had the distress of slavery, as [Pharaoh] was already asking them to work for him, as we find in the Talmud, Sotah 11a-b”.
We now progress to the second of the three reasons that the Midrash gives for Vayechi being a “closed” parashah – “Because Jacob our father wanted to reveal the time of Redemption to his sons, but it was ‘closed’ [i.e. concealed] from him”.
The Torah tells us that “Jacob called to his sons, saying to them: Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days” (Genesis 49:1). The Talmud elaborates: “Jacob wished to reveal the End of Days to his sons, and the Shekhinah (the Divine Presence) departed from him” (Pesachim 56a).
The Targum Yonatan paraphrases Genesis 49:1: “Then Jacob called to his sons and said to them: Cleanse yourselves from impurity and I will show you closed secrets, concealed end-times, and the reward which is to be given to the tzaddikim, the punishment of the evil ones, and what the delight of Eden is. They gathered as one, the twelve Tribes of Israel around the golden bed upon which he had been lying ever since the time that the Glory of HaShem’s Shekhinah had been revealed. Then the final future time when King Mashiach was to come was hidden from him, and he therefore said: Come, and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days”.
And finally we come to the third and final reason that the Midrash gives for Vayechi being “closed”: “Because all the sufferings in the world were closed off from Jacob”.
He had lived a life filled with turbulence and adversity; from the nigh-fatal sibling rivalry with his twin brother Esau which began even while they were yet in their mother’s womb, to fleeing for his very life from his brother, to twenty years of exile and exploitation at the hands of his devious and mendacious uncle Laban, to having to fight his way past an angel to return home, to the premature death of his beloved wife Rachel shortly after entering Canaan, to the enmity of the inhabitants of Canaan, to the rape of his daughter Dinah by Shechem, to the disappearance and presumed death of his beloved son Joseph, to coping with famine, to having to send ten of his sons down to Egypt and only nine of them returning, to having to despatch even Benjamin, the only remaining son of his beloved Rachel, down into the jaws of Egypt.
Now, at last, upon arriving in Egypt, all this turbulence and adversity was at an end, and Jacob could live out the rest of his life in peace and happiness.
The Midrash Lekach Tov says: “It is written, ‘It is good to fill one hand with tranquillity, rather than to fill two fists with travail and spiritual confusion’ (Ecclesiastes 4:6). Those seventeen years were good for our father Jacob, as it says ‘Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years…’, because he lived them in tranquillity, with the [founders of the] Tribes around him, his grandchildren being fruitful and multiplying. His eyes saw and his heart rejoiced, there was no adversity and no sickness, his son Joseph ruled over the country and brought him all the food he needed… ‘Fill[ing] two fists with travail and spiritual confusion’ – all of his 130 years that he was not in Egypt were in travail…”.
The Torah does not begin a new parashah with the verse “Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years; and the days of Jacob – the years of his life – were one hundred and forty-seven years”. But the Rabbis wanted to indicate that, nevertheless, this was indeed the beginning of a new era.
Jacob’s final seventeen years in this world were his halcyon days, a new and wonderful era for him. But they were also the beginning of the period of the harshest and most murderous oppression that his descendants would ever face…until the time would come, some three-and-a-half thousand years later, when his descendants, beginning their return to the Land of Israel for the final Redemption, would face a new and even crueller Pharaoh attempting to exterminate them.
And one final reflection on the Sidrah which begins with the word “vayechi”: two Sidrahs in the Torah are named for life: Chayyei Sarah (“the life of Sarah”) and Vayechi (“he lived”). Chayyei Sarah – the life of Sarah – opens with the death of Sarah, and Vayechi recounts the death of Jacob.
Maybe another reason that the Rabbis deliberately began this Sidrah here, though it is the middle of a parashah, was in order to name it “Vayechi”, and thus to teach us a great lesson of Judaism: tzaddikim, even after their physical deaths, are still called living (Berachot 18a).