“The Sealed Torah Portion”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is unique among all the parashiot of the Torah in that parashat Vayechi is literally a direct continuation of last week’s parasha, Vayigash. In fact, the new Torah portion is written in the Torah as one very long paragraph that starts with the end of last week’s parasha and concludes with the first four verses of Vayechi, with only a single letter space in between. All of the other 48 weekly Torah portions begin with a new paragraph, sometimes open, sometimes closed, but always a new paragraph.

The rabbis propose various reasons for this unusual format. Some suggest that since the enslavement of Egypt begins with the death of Jacob, which takes place in this parasha, the Torah portion is symbolically “sealed,” representing death. A similar idea is expressed by those who maintain that Jacob’s eyes were closed with his passing, so the parasha is also closed. Others suggest that, since the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe are given in this parasha in private and not in public, the parasha itself is a “private” parasha.

Another significant reason for the sealed parasha is mentioned in Sefer Haparshiot, authored by Eliyahu Kitov. Kitov notes that a fundamental difference is articulated in this parasha between the way Jacob perceives the Egyptian exile and the way his sons perceive this exile. This difference is based on the immediate proximity of the concluding verse of parashat Vayigash, and the first verse of this week’s portion, Vayechi. The final verse in Vayigash reads (Genesis 47:27): “Va’yay’shev Yisrael b’eretz Mitzrayim b’eretz Goshen, va’yay’ah’cha’zoo vah, va’yif’roo va’yir’boo m’od.” And [the people of] Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen, they acquired property in it, and they were fruitful and multiplied greatly. This is immediately followed by the verse (Genesis 47:28) “Vye’chee Yaakov b’eretz Mitzrayim…” and Jacob lived in the land of Egypt.

The rabbis ask: If the children of Israel have settled in Egypt which is exile, how is it possible to describe Jacob as “living” in Egypt? After all, it is this “settling” that leads directly to enslavement. This lead-in to slavery can hardly be called “living.”

The rabbis explain that the reason that these two parashiot are sealed is specifically because there is no rhyme, reason or rationale to explain the connection between the end of parashat Vayigash and the beginning of Parashat Vayechi. No matter how hard we try, we inevitably fail to understand how the children of Jacob could settle in Egypt and that Jacob could “live” and flourish in Egypt.

As previously noted, there was a fundamental difference between the perspectives of Jacob and his sons. Jacob saw settling in Egypt as the beginning of enslavement, whereas his children saw Egypt as a period of unprecedented success. “Is this galut? Can this be exile?” they asked. “Look how important we are here in Egypt!” And because the children of Israel refused to acknowledge the dangers of galut, the entire Torah portion is sealed and closed. Jacob was terribly concerned that the children of Israel would never want to forsake Egypt, even when the 400 years of enslavement predicted by G-d (Genesis 15) at the Covenant Between the Pieces come to an end. He, therefore, begins to make preparations to ensure that they would leave. It is for this reason that Jacob exacts a promise from Joseph that his body would be removed from Egypt and returned to Canaan at the end of his days.

The ambivalence regarding the exile in Egypt (“Is it good for the Jews or bad for the Jews?”) is reflected as well in the Zohar and the Midrashic commentaries, which note that virtually all the days of Jacob’s life were filled with pain. Only when he reached Egypt does scripture say, “Vayechi,” that Jacob lived–in peace and tranquility. It was in Egypt that Jacob saw his son Joseph serving as an exalted leader. In Egypt, he saw his righteous children living in a most comfortable manner. Since it seems that Egypt and prosperity are linked, it is appropriate that there be no pause between the Torah portion that speaks of the Jewish people being fruitful and the text describing Jacob living.

The rabbis in the Midrash further note that the Egyptians readily acknowledged that all the goodness and abundance that was visited upon Egypt was due to Jacob. They accorded Jacob and the members of his household much honor. Despite his old age, however, Jacob was not deceived by the Egyptians’ constant fawning over him. Unlike his sons, Jacob’s eyes were open, and he clearly foresaw the enslavement of his sons in this “blessed” land of Egypt. Consequently, he would constantly attempt to open the hearts and minds of his children and alert them to the dangers of the impending enslavement. He would beseech and warn them: “These Egyptians who are presenting to you all the good of the land and honoring you, and are presumably showing love to you today, don’t trust them! For in the long run they will turn their hearts on you and persecute you. Watch your step! It is not right for you and for them to live together!”

When Jacob died, the Egyptians clearly understood that their great “benefactor” was now gone. In fact, the Midrash maintains that even a bit of the famine returned. But because the Jews had encountered such success in the “exile” of Egypt, the people could not perceive anything but goodness, certainly not slavery. In fact, the children of Israel regarded their sojourn in Egypt as “blessed.” Ironically, at the same time that the Jews were saying to themselves, “Who could possibly harm us?,” behind closed doors, the Egyptians were plotting and organizing the enslavement. Unbeknownst to the Jewish masses, the painful period had begun–the agony of enslavement that was to result in the closing of hearts and minds. Therefore, the portion is sealed.

This “sealed” parasha also underscores how perplexing parashat Vayechi really is. Consider for a moment. It was specifically in the “bitter” exile of Egypt that the Jewish people flourished and became a nation of 600,000 males alone. Similarly, it was in Egypt that our forefather, Jacob, completed his life in holiness. It was in Egypt that Jewish success and Jacob’s life reached a level that was not reached in the land of our forefathers. It was in Egypt that the Jewish people began preparing for the acceptance of the written Torah. It was there, with the burial of the patriarch Joseph, that the book of Genesis concludes. And so too does the story of the creation of the world conclude. Jacob did not merit to bless his children with the blessings of eternity, except in Egypt.

It was in Egypt, in this most decadent of lands, that the Jewish people prospered and grew–not in the land of our forefathers, not in the Holy Land, but in Egypt. All this was due to the unfathomable decree of the Al-mighty that we are unable to comprehend. To understand these two parashiot is beyond our ken–they are sealed, and we have no explanations.

And yet, parashat Vayechi provides us with a comforting message of faith for today–not to give up hope. When we, the contemporary People of Israel, behold the unrelenting decline of one generation after another, and ask ourselves, how will we ever merit redemption? It is to the exile of Egypt that we look and see, it was there, in that thoroughly corrupt environment, that the Jewish people merited to be given the written Torah. Similarly, it was in the future bitter exile of Babylon that the Jewish people merited to receive the oral code. Without knowing or understanding the reason, it seems that G-d’s plan for exile is for it to enrich our People.

What is the rationale behind the Divine plan? What does G-d have in store for us? We don’t know, the portion is sealed! What we do know is that if we have faith, we will prevail!

May you be blessed.