Dvar Torah for Shabbat Vayigash (12/21/12; 9 Tevet 5773)

(Gen. 44:18 – 47:27)

Well, we made it.  No Mayan Apocalypse today.  And even better – we made it to the solstice so that the daylight hours will start getting longer again. 

And we made it to another Shabbat – that “palace in time” (as Heschel describes it) which affords us “a taste of heaven” (as the sages tell us). 

And we made it to another day.

And we made it to this moment.

For these miracles we give thanks.

Of course, we never know what tomorrow may bring, which is why Jewish tradition also includes such meaningful teachings as this one from Masechet Shabbat in the Talmud:

"Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. His students asked Rabbi Eliezer,  ‘But does a person  know on which day he or she will die?’  He said to them: ‘Well, since that’s the case, one should repent today, for perhaps one will die tomorrow. Therefore, let all one’s days be passed in a state of teshuvah.”   (Shabbat 153b)

At all times we should strive to be kind to one another; at all times we should strive truly to see one another as btzelem elohim/ created in the image of God. 

Especially in light of the mass shootings in Connecticut last week, we are painfully aware of the fleeting nature of life, and of the necessity of treasuring each moment we share together on this planet. 

At times like this we are reminded that the most important things in life are our relationships with one another, not the things we own. 

And what about those things we own?  At Genesis 46:27, the last verse of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we learn:  "Vayeshev yisra'el be'eretz mitzrayim be'eretz goshen vayei'achazu vah vayifru vayirbu me'od" which the new Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translates at Genesis 46:27 as:  “Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.” (emphasis added)

Within that verse, I’d like to focus on the phrase “Vaye’achazu vah” , translated as “they acquired holdings in it.”  When I was reviewing the parashah this week, something seemed odd about that phrase to me, and I double checked my biblical Hebrew grammar and, indeed, there is something fishy about the translation.

I don’t doubt the scholarship of the team that translated the Tanakh for the Jewish Publication Society.  I’m sure they’re right that, as a matter of idiomatic usage, the expression “vaye’achazu vah” can reasonably be translated as “they acquired holdings in it.”

Indeed, Ibn Ezra’s commentary back in the 12th century says that the phrase "vayei'achazu vah" means “shekanu sham achuzah”/ “that they purchased there a holding.”   However, the Torah doesn’t actually say “shekanu sham achuzah” – what it actually says is "vayei'achazu vah"  using a passive conjugation of the verbal root alef-chet-zayin, which means “to hold” or “to grasp”.   So, translated literally, the phrase “וַיֵּאָֽחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ” / vayei'achazu vah means “they were held by it.”   That’s quite a difference – between “they acquired holdings in it” versus “they were held by it”….

And this reminded me of another verse in Genesis that uses a passive form of the verb alef-chet-zayin:  In Genesis 22:13, in the famous story of Akedat Yitzchak/ The Binding of Isaac – Abraham looks up and sees a ram “ne’echaz basvach” – Caught in a thicket.  “Ne’echaz” is also a passive form of that same verb (aleph-chet-zayin) used in Genesis 47 to describe Israelites  settling in Goshen. 

We know what happens after that:  A new pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” arises and enslaves the Israelites for 400 years.  (We get to that part of the torah two weeks from now in Parshat Shemot).  In this week’s Torah reading, the bitterness of Israelite slavery is yet to come.  But the scene is set here: They thought they were purchasing holdings but  ---in fact --- just like the ram destined for the slaughter, they were “ne’echazim” – held/caught/ensnared/trapped by their own possessions.

I’m 51 now, and a saying I came across not too long ago sticks in my mind:  Up to age 45 we try to acquire stuff – After age 45 we try to get rid of stuff.

That seems so wise to me:  You don’t have to go to extremes with any of this – but – truly --- as we get older we can get ensnared/ ne’echazim/ by our possessions.  The older we get, the deeper we understand that our true riches are in the connections we make with others, and in the experiences and the wisdom that we acquire in our journeys through life.

Coming back to the events of last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut, we can’t help but be struck by the tragic consequences of so many Americans’ obsession with the possession of guns.  The Torah says: “וַיֵּאָֽחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ”/ "vayei'achazu vah"and we ask:  Does this mean “they acquired holdings in it” ?   Or does this mean “They were ensnared by it” ?.  And similarly we ask:  Isn’t it really the gun owners themselves who are ensnared  -- who are “held up” by the lethal weapons they purport to hold? 

And, indeed, studies have shown that the presence of a gun in one’s home, even if intended for protection, statistically increases the odds of the owner being killed[1] -- as was the case with the shooter’s own mother in Connecticut who was killed by her son using a gun she herself owned.

One of the big challenges we face in the struggle to pass effective gun control legislation is that guns have become a sort of macho identity badge.  But Jewish tradition offers a different view, as we see in the following teaching from the Mishna. 

As background to the following teaching, remember that traditional Jewish law, halacha, forbids the carrying of items in the public domain on Shabbat.  However, if an item forms part of your clothing or jewelry, then you would be considered to be “wearing” it (which is okay) and you wouldn’t be considered as “carrying” it (which would be a halachic violation).  And so we learn in the Mishnah in Masechet Shabbat, ch. 6, Mishnah 4: 

ו,ד לא ייצא האיש לא בסיף, ולא בקשת, ולא בתריס, ולא באלה, ולא ברומח. ואם יצא, חייב חטאת. רבי אליעזר אומר, תכשיטין הן לו; וחכמים אומרים, אינן לו אלא גנאי, שנאמר "וכיתתו חרבותם לאיתים, וחניתותיהם למזמרות" (ישעיהו ב,ד)[.[..

A man must not go out [of the house on Shabbat] bearing a sword, nor a bow, nor a shield, nor a lance nor a spear. And if he did go out [with one of these] he is liable for a sin offering [because he has violated the final Shabbat labor, carrying]. Rabbi Eliezer says, “these are his ornaments” [like clothing or jewelry, and therefore he should be allowed to wear them]. But the Sages say [he is liable, because these are not ornaments. Rather,] these [weapons] are shameful; as it says, (Isaiah 2:4), “they shall beat their swords into plough shares and their spears into pruning-hooks”

And that verse from Isaiah quoted in the Mishnah concludes –

"lo yisa goy el goy cherev, velo yilmedu od milchamah"

"Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they will not learn war any more” […]  

That is our prayer as well.

Shabbat shalom.


© Rabbi David Steinberg (Tevet 5773/ Dec. 2012)




Posted on January 3, 2013 .