Thoughts on Parshat Vayechi  (5779/2018)

(Gen 47:28 - 50:26)   
(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel, Duluth on Friday evening 12/21/18)

This Shabbat, with Torah portion, Vayechi, we come to the end of the Book of Genesis.  And more specifically, we come to the end of the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs.  Our parasha this week features Jacob’s deathbed blessings for his twelve sons, and for his two grandsons from Joseph, and finally the death of Joseph himself.  The very last word of the book is “bmitzrayim” meaning “in Egypt” --- one of the many literary touches that transition us into the story of slavery and exodus that we’ll begin reading next week.

In reviewing the parasha this time around, I find myself drawn to a mysterious verse that comes in the middle of Jacob’s series of blessings of his twelve sons.  In Genesis 49: 18, after Jacob has blessed seven of his twelve sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levy, Yehudah , Yisachar, Zevulun and Dan --- and before he blesses the remaining five of his sons:  Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Yosef, and Binyamin – it seems like Jacob suddenly switches gear and blurts out an emotional prayer for himself.  He exclaims:

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

In the Plaut Torah commentary this is translated as “I wait for your deliverance, O Lord”.  We could also translate yeshuatkha as “your salvation”.  And we could also translate “kiviti” as “I hope” or “I expect” or “I long for.” (That verb “kiviti” has the same grammatical root as the word “tikvah” / “hope” --- as in the title of the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah”/ “The Hope”

So what’s going on here with this verse:  לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

How are we to understand these words?

Depending on how you deliver the line, I suppose it could be a statement of utter faith and confidence:  “I expect your salvation, Adonai”

Or it could be a statement of utter despair and anguish:

“I long for your deliverance, Adonai”

In the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, one of the explanations offered for this verse is that it “could be a prayer uttered by Jacob who, in a sudden moment of weakness, calls for strength to finish the testament.”   

Let me read you the verse in the context of the verses that surround it so that you can get a sense of how jarring it sounds.  Remember that we are in the middle of Jacob’s deathbed blessing of his twelve sons.  We pick up the text with the blessing of Zevulun at Gen. 49:13:

Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; He shall be a haven for ships, And his flank shall rest on Sidon. Issachar is a strong-boned ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds. When he saw how good was security, And how pleasant was the country, He bent his shoulder to the burden, And became a toiling serf. Dan shall govern his people, As one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.

I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!

Gad shall be raided by raiders, But he shall raid at their heels. Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties. Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.[1]  


It does seem to come out of nowhere, doesn’t it?

How does it feel when we encounter the verse in our Torah portion ---

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

“I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!”

Not only for Jacob, but each one of us as well  – when we are tired and depleted, when we feel immobilized by fear or depression or grief or simple physical exhaustion ---- it is a natural reaction to look to God, however we may understand God, to help us persevere.   Jacob seems to be doing so because he is near the end of his life --- and his life has been a hard and stressful one.

And this sense of deliverance is available for us as well.  Whatever circumstances we find ourselves in at the end of each week, Shabbat provides a respite, a taste of redemption that, if we let it, can stay with us throughout the week and even in our most difficult times.

לִֽישׁוּעָתְךָ֖ קִוִּ֥יתִי יְ-ה-וָֽ-ה׃

(Liyeshuatekha kiviti Adonai)

I wait for Your deliverance, Adonai!

Alternatively, a number of commentators both traditional and modern, see the verse not as a separate aside by Jacob, but rather as part of Jacob’s previous blessing for Dan. In one interpretation[2], Jacob is prophetically channeling a prayer that Samson, from the tribe of Dan, would utter as he – Samson -- prepared to topple the walls of the pagan Temple and kill himself and the Philistines gathered there.

In another interpretation[3], when Jacob says “yeshuatekha” “your salvation” --  Jacob is himself addressing the future tribe of Dan.  In other words when he says “yeshuatekha” your salvation -- he means “your” with a lower case “y”,  praying that the future tribe of Dan will find deliverance through God’s help.  Later in the Tanakh the tribe of Dan has as its designated territory the Mediterranean coastal region that now includes the city of Tel Aviv.  Indeed, “Dan” is the name of the municipal bus system in Tel Aviv today. 

But in the book of Judges in the Tanakh, the tribe of Dan was unable to secure its designated territory and so they had to wander to the farthest northern reaches of the land of Israel to establish themselves there.

How does all this apply to our day?

Trying to make political commentary based on biblical texts is an impressionistic game at best. 

But when I think about Samson bringing down the pillars of the pagan Temple – creating what some see as havoc and some see as deliverance –  I can’t help but think of the chaos of international relations today – and of the foreign policy twists and turns that change by the minute as we follow news reports and scroll through our social media accounts.

Are the walls tumbling down on us?

Difficult to say.

And I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad for the peace of Shabbat and for the deliverance and salvation that comes from having a little faith in God and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi David Steinberg
© Tevet 5779/ December 2018

[1] Gen. 49:13-21



Posted on December 28, 2018 .