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Parashat Vayechi

01/10/2020 11:26:17 AM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayechi. In this portion, Jacob bestows his living will and testament and his ethical will upon his sons along with blessings for them as he prepares to die. This is the end of the Book of Genesis, but really just the beginning of our great narrative of the Jewish people. This is where we start to see the tribes take shape, both as each of the brothers grow their own families into actual tribes, and as we see Jacob articulate their personalities and how their descendants will forever reflect those personalities.

            This week we also began a new cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying one page of Talmud a day in order to take on the arduous task of getting through the whole voluminous text. Theoretically, one could start this at any time: just pick up a volume and start reading! But, as we are meant to study Talmud in Chevruta, it is easier to have learning partners if we’re all on the same schedule. Those in Yeshiva who dedicate their lives to such a practice have just finished reading through the whole Talmud together, and now the whole Jewish world is ready to start anew. It has been amazing to me to see my newsfeed flooded with secular Jews, Jews from every denomination, Jews of every gender identity, and Jews with wide ranges of education backgrounds take on this task as we all prepare to start at the beginning and make our way through the next seven(ish) years immersed in collective study of our past.

            There are several aspects of this that jumped out at me in relation to this week’s parasha. First, that it takes seven years. Seven years was also the increments in which we saw Jacob work for Laban in order to amass his wives (and thus his children) and his wealth. Without those three contracts of seven years each, Jacob would not be who he is or where he is as he lies down with his fathers in this week’s parasha. Seven years is also how long Egypt had abundance and seven years is how long the whole levant had famine. Without those two cycles of seven years, Joseph wouldn’t be who he is now, in a position to grant this comfort to his aging and ailing father. Without the sequence of events in those fourteen years that put Joseph into power, the rest of the his family would likely have starved to death in Canaan.

            But they did have all those meaningful cycles of seven years each, and now they are in the relative safety of Egypt, and Jacob has lived to old age, and now he is in a position to prepare to die with dignity, and give his blessings to his loved ones. When we start a new cycle of Talmud study, we start with Masechet B’rachot, the volume on blessings. This is true for the official Daf Yomi cycle, and it is true for all Talmud classes I’ve ever heard of, that pick and choose significant passages to study over the course of seven semesters rather than years. Blessings create frameworks for our lives and spirituality. They help us articulate our feelings, and guide us in our conversations with God. They connect us with the world around us, and they express the Divine Love that fills the world, that we should learn to feel and spread.

           In the beginning of Masechet B’rachot, the rabbis are specifically discussing when to recite the Shema prayers. We know they are said when we rise up and when we lie down, and also when we die, but when? In a complicated world, halakha can offer structure that also aids the blessings that frame our lives. Maybe as Reform Jews we choose not to adhere strictly to the ancient rabbis’ interpretations of these laws, but something as simple as an instruction to say the Shema when it gets dark out or after dinner, in case you doze off earlier than anticipated without having said it can serve as a reminder generally not to procrastinate. I may not personally recite the Shema every night and every morning, but I can relate to the problem of falling asleep on the couch and then regretting having to still drag myself through my nighttime routine of taking out my contacts and flossing and so on. The core of these first few pages of the Talmud is really a blessing for mindfulness. And as for the tradition to say the Shema when the time comes near to die, we haven’t quite gotten to any argument about that yet in this first week of Daf Yomi, but I still think it connects these pages of discussing the Shema to this week’s parasha. Though the part of the Torah in which we find the Shema comes later, I’m sure there is a midrash somewhere that Jacob too recited these words as he took his last breath. If not, I just wrote one.

            If you haven’t already looked into Daf Yomi, I encourage you to do so. I needed some encouragement myself, but it is truly exciting to be a part of something so global and so Jewish. May this next seven years bring us many blessings of learning, love, and deep connections. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780