Thursday, January 12, 2006

FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: Incongruity (Vayechi)


Tevet 12, 5766 * January 12, 2006


Parshat Vayechi

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Goodness and holiness are universal concepts. The problem is that they are often seen as ethereal, beyond the world. When the ethereal ideal is put together with tangible reality, the combination may seem so incongruous that people cannot accept it at all. This affects the way people look at the Jewish presence in Israel. People find it hard to accept the idea that the Jews should defend themselves, that there should be a wall protecting them from attack, that Israel should have secure borders.

Let us assume we are not dealing with outright anti-Semites. There are people who say yes, the Jews are a historic people, with a great tradition. People who claim they are not against Jews at all. The only problem is, they say, why do they have to be so aggressive in defending themselves? Why do they have to be so aggressive in just existing? Let them be purely spiritual, that way we think they are wonderful. But please, no weapons, no army, nothing real.

This problem relates to the entire Book of Genesis, which our Parsha [1] concludes this week. Let us consider how it begins, telling us that G-d created the world.

The famous commentator Rashi takes a rather surprising approach. He asks why the Torah should begin with a description of Creation. The Torah is a book of laws. So let it begin with laws! Why should it begin with a description of Creation? He gives a striking answer. The account of G-d creating the world is written so that "If the nations of the world will say to the Jewish people, you have taken the Land of Israel unlawfully, the Jews can answer them saying 'the whole world belongs to G-d. He created it and He gave it to whom He pleased. By His will He gave it to the Canaanites, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us" [2].

The Lubavitcher Rebbe makes an interesting comment on this. The nations of the world recognise that the Jews are a spiritual people, different to other nations. But, they feel, if the Jews are spiritual they are set apart from the physical world. Why should they claim a physical patch of land?

The claim of the beginning of the Torah is that spirituality should be expressed in the physical. Yes, the Jews are especially holy. But G-d desires that they express that holiness in their ownership of the physical Land of Israel.

At the very end of the Book of Genesis, the last verse tells us that "Joseph died aged 110, and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt". Surely this too is incongruous, to our own ears? Why should the wonderful Book of Genesis end on this gloomy note? And further, why indeed, should Joseph's remains have been left in Egypt? Jacob his father also died in Egypt but was buried in Israel.

The answer is that the presence of Joseph's coffin in Egypt is another example of the spiritual descending into the physical. The resting place of a Tzaddik is sacred. The fact that Joseph's remains were in Egypt, together with the Jewish people, was a spiritual force in the low physicality of Egypt. It helped the Jews survive their period of slavery so that eventually they could return to the Land of Israel.

This is the task of Creation, of the Torah and of the Jewish people: to bring holiness into the world. Hence the Jewish people were given a physical territory of land, and Joseph's coffin rested in the land of Egypt. The ultimate purpose is that the world, both Egypt and the Land of Israel, should become a dwelling for the Divine [3]..


1. Genesis 47:28-50:26.
2. Rashi to Genesis 1:1.
3. Likkutei Sichot vol.30, p.249 ff


Featured Audio Class on

Vayechi - Jacob's Unrequited Desire
By Moshe New

“Jacob called for his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days”. Rashi explains: He attempted to reveal when Moshiach would come, but the Shechinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.

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By Dr. Tali Loewenthal, Director of Chabad Research Unit, London

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