Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of December 27, 2020 – January 2, 2021
By Rabbi Neil Blumofe, ’09
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Growing up as I did in the 70’s and 80’s in my suburban community outside of Chicago, on many sunny afternoons, my friends and I explored the developing neighborhood as we rode our banana seat bicycles around – talking about everything under the sun.  One topic that frequently came up was the idea of heaven.  At the time, I wasn’t prepared to offer a discourse about either the traditional or the mystical Jewish concepts of what heaven is or what it represents.  Neither could I tell any Jewish-themed jokes about what happens in heaven if and when you get there.
I mostly listened and imagined what information I would want to have or what would be revealed.  I couldn’t tell one of my other favorite jokes – maybe you know it – the one about the religious Jewish man who gets to heaven and is greeted by a chorus of angels and offered VIP treatment – he is gently surrounded and encouraged upon entering his new home – and Gabriel, the chief among all of the angels declares that in his specific honor – there will be a banquet that evening to welcome his exalted presence among all of the celestial beings of this Divine place – that this man was such a tsaddik – a holy person – that now that he is among them, a deeper supernal light will shine.
The man seems a bit uncomfortable about this, pauses, and finally asks – thank you, but excuse me, who is the mashgiach of this banquet – who is supervising the kosher food?  Gabriel is delighted by this question and hovers down close to the man, exclaiming – why just for you, in your honor, the KBH – God specifically will be handling the food requirements – can you imagine, the greatest honor of all!
And the man again pauses, thinks things through, and after some discomforting hesitation says – alright – I’ll have the fish.
That joke would have bowled my suburban non-Jewish friends right over.
Back then, my sister would often listen to the Rolling Stones – and I remember being enthralled by the song, “Sympathy for the Devil.”  Indeed, when thinking about what secrets heaven would reveal – my mind takes me back to those lyrics – I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys/When after all, it was you and me.  That’s actually what I thought about when I was about ten or so – who did kill the Kennedys – and I thought, in my youthful view, that in heaven all of that and other secrets, like the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness monster, and even the secret of Atlantis, would be revealed.
Had I known back then about this Torah portion – it may have made all the difference in the world.  Here is Jacob, offering blessings to his grandsons and to his boys before he expires upon the bed.  Our Torah tells us – Vayikra Ya’akov el banav, vayomer heiasfu v’agidah lachem, et asher yikra etchem b’a’charit hayamim – And Jacob called for his sons and said – assemble yourselves and I will tell you all what will befall you in the End of Days.  Here it is – what we are waiting for – all of the secrets of the various worlds will now be revealed!
Our commentators speculate in the same way – Rashi states that Jacob was to reveal when the Moshiah, the messiah, was to come – however, when he was fixing to do so, at that moment, God caused Jacob to have what we would now call a senior moment – and he was unable to remember this crucial information to tell his children.  Other sages state that upon his sons, Jacob bestowed the realization of what heaven would be on earth – that if they resolve to have true and upright speech – that this will bring the tribes together and insure the restoration of the future.  And what is this true and upright speech?  It is the daily declaration of the Shema Yisrael.
According to a Midrash, the Shema was recited by the sons of Jacob as they gathered around him – reassuring him on his deathbed that they have learned from him – and have taken his lessons to heart, to impart on the next generation – another way to translate Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – be reassured Yisrael/Jacob – our God is your God, the one God – and according to our tradition, Jacob replied – Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto l’Olam Vaed – Baruch haShem!  The holy understanding will continue after me.
So, beyond the general affirmation of transmitting tradition from one generation to the next, Jacob wanted to bestow upon his family a voice – for each child to use their unique voice in pursuit of this truth.  So, each of the subsequent blessings that Jacob gave to each of his sons was able to unlock the unique voice that each one possessed.  In the End of Days, what will befall the family?  Jacob isn’t able to tell them directly – however, he does grant them permission to find their own way, steeped in the legacy, heritage, and love that he has given them throughout his lifetime.
While it may not have been perfect – it was what he was able to do – and to have his sons respond that what he did was enough -allowed him to pass away from this earth, made whole in the reassurances of his children.  There is also a midrash that teaches that Jacob did not really die – the Torah never uses the word for death – only that Jacob expired – or exhaled – so his legacy is alive – od Avinu Chai – our father still lives – that is, in all that we do and how we strive not to enter into heaven – but how we try to bring heaven to earth – a sense of hope, industry to solve difficult problems, and an unwavering commitment to raise up our children in our traditions that bring life.
Heaven is lo bashamayim hi – it’s not out there, gauzy and indeterminate.  It’s in the way that we fix our problems and try to prevent new ones from occurring – heaven is created in the way that we sit with the vulnerable and lonely, and allow others to take care of us as well.  It’s how we develop our voice to speak on issues of our concern – and that we are not dissuaded from this vital exercise.  And also, it is guiding us to sing out with a full voice each day – that we are connected to what has come before us, our upbringing has been pretty okay – or at least we will survive it — and what the End of Days will be is solely in our grasp to shape for as long as we have the power to do so.
What’s heaven about?  Together and loudly:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad!
The kids are alright.
Shabbat Shalom.