Parshat VaYechei

Parshat VaYechi features a interesting phenomenon at the very beginning of the parsha: unlike most, there is no break between the last word of VaYigash and the first of VaYechi, whereby one ignorant of the progression wouldn’t notice that a new chapter begins. The question therefore becomes – what is the symbolism of the “closed” parsha?

Rashi teaches us that this foreshadows the nature of the change that occurred in b’Nei Yisrael after Yaakov’s death, their eyes and hearts closing as the slavery and toil of Egypt began. However, a seemingly significant flaw exists in this explanation, because while it explains the theme of closure, it appears to disregard the fact that Yaakov doesn’t die until the middle of the parsha, and moreover, their slavery too doesn’t begin until much later. So still, we must ask – what does the “closure” represent?

The Kli Yakar, in tandem with Rav Moshe Feinstein brings a correlation between the last line of VaYigash and the entire parsha of VaYechi. VaYigash ends by describing the settling of b’Nei Yisrael into the land of Goshen, and herein lies the beginning of the Kli Yakar’s explanation. In their settlement, b’Nei Yisrael completely ignored the covert warning brought to Avraham in the foreshadowing of their experience in Egypt – גר יהיה זרעך – and instead approach their relocation with a desire to fit in and integrate into Egyptian culture. They were enticed by the country flourishing despite a famine, drawn in by a culture that worshiped a life of ease and indulgent, and began to drift away from the cruxes of their nature. They didn’t want to be strangers in Egypt, so they worked to fit in, rather than to maintain their identities.

Rav Moshe develops this idea further, explaining that, in times when there is acute awareness of differences between people, it is obvious when things begin to go awry. The transition into slavery wasn’t sudden, but rather gradual, as the Egyptians used a “פה רך” to coerce b’Nei Yisrael into subversion, and the magnitude of its effect was because of the stubborn determination of b’Nei Yisrael to be one of the crowd, not to raise attention to their uniqueness (מדרש שמות רבה א). Thus, the death of Yaakov was the beginning of their eyes being “closed” to what was so obvious around them; that they weren’t like the Egyptians, and even more so, that their differences weren’t meant to be ashamed of.

What we can take away from this idea in its simplest sense can be starkly applied today. B’Nei Yisrael’s virtual rejection of their own culture in an effort of fit in is still common in modern society, echoed most greatly in the years leading up to the Holocaust, and the responsive warning is essential to the balance of religion and modernity. We can assimilate and adapt, we can grow with the times, and we can be influenced by cultures around us, but not at the expense of who we are. We cannot embrace so much of what is outside that we knock out our innermost quality, our unique and unparalleled national connection to Hashem and value for what he has given us. It is that nuanced balance of Torat Chaim and secular culture that we must constant bear in mind, because the ramifications of forgetting it lead to tremendous loss for our people. Forgetting our potential in favor of the adoption of a culture with values so contradictory to our own is the greatest theoretical heartbreak Hashem can suffer, and it requires such a powerful reminder to overture simply because it is that important, because we are that crucial to the world. May we never forget it.

Student Studying in MMY

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