Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of January 4-January 10, 2009

“Knowing and Not Knowing”

By Judy Aronson
AJRCA Professor of Education

Writing my first exegesis in graduate school, I felt constrained by being told to only look at the surface, the p’shat. My first attempt was not very good and I felt I would never be able to do it well. Then gradually I fell in love with Biblical grammar and structure. I was excited that the letter vov preceding a verb at the beginning of a sentence alters the tense or that a “ki” indicated an explanatory phrase. I learned when words were repeated in close proximity, it made a difference. I began enjoying the challenge of a “close reading of the text”. Now when a word or phrase jumps off the page and beckons me, I can’t wait to explore it.

This is precisely what happened while reading Vayechi. It is a parasha full of blessings, moving end of life stories of both Jacob and Joseph, and burial instructions. But I was particularly fascinated by Genesis 48:19 and the repetition of the verb “to know.”

Here is the scene. Jacob, sometimes a trickster and sometimes himself tricked in his past, has told Joseph that he would adopt his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim. In this way he doubles Joseph’s portion and shows his special love (which once got Joseph into significant difficulty) to Rachel’s son. But instead of giving Manasseh the firstborn’s blessing, he places his right hand on Ephraim’s head, reversing the birth order. Joseph sees this and tells his father to uncross his hands, perhaps afraid this is another trick that will cause trouble. After all, Jacob is near death, his vision is poor and he may have simply made an innocent mistake. But Jacob’s response is vigorous and emphatic, “I know, my son, I know.” What is this all about?

When I told my Grandmother Gussie that I was studying to become a Bat Mitzvahshe said approvingly, “A person has to know.” What does the root yadah mean? In Biblical Hebrew it might translate as “perceive, discriminate, be acquainted with, have sexual intercourse with.” Is Jacob emphasizing I can still PERCEIVE which grandson is which and I know which one to bless first since I see their destiny. In Chapter 49 when he blesses his other sons, he predicts the nature of their future as leaders of the other ten tribes. Like his son Joseph, he has had his own dreams.

Contrast this “really knowing” with Genesis 28:17, when Jacob, a young man fleeing from his home, was not so sure of himself. He awakens from a dream in which he and his descendents are blessed and confusedly says, “Surely G-d is present in this place, and I did not know it.”(Genesis 28:16). Here he is not sure of his ‘knowing’ even in the presence of such a numinous event. His later statement reflects the fact that Jacob, in his old age, has matured and is now confident of how to bless his grandsons.

Next week we begin Shemot. Many years have passed and “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” This pharaoh’s ignorance will lead to great misfortune for Jacob’s and Joseph’s progeny. It is a good thing we will say Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek to strengthen us for what lies ahead.

I dedicate this to my granddaughter Lily who will be called to the Torah this coming Shabbat to read from Vayechi. She is the third generation of women in our family to become a Bat Mitzvah at the age of thirteen. May she live a long and meaningful life and come to “really know” all that a person has to know.

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