We are pleased to share Meirav Goldman’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Vayechi from her recent bat mitzvah at Congregation Bonai Shalom.
by Meirav Goldman
Last month, a man named Stu Cabe came to my school. Stu is a speaker for the Boomerang Project and comes to schools to talk about community behavior. He talked to my grade for seven hours. He spoke about being kind, the effects of bullying, he even told us a story about elephant behavior. But what really caught my eye is when he said the word “CHANGE”. Change is a very powerful thing; it can be any kind of change, from change in evolution to change in technology and, especially change in how we all interact with each other.
The name of my Parsha is V’Yechi. V’Yechi means “and he lived”, which refers to Ya’akov or Jacob. But this is a strange name for this parsha since Jacob actually dies. Let me tell you the story and I will get back to this point and how the name V’Yechi ties in with the chain of events.
Jacob lived 147 years. The last 17 years he spent in Egypt. He asked G-d for a sign that that he was dying, and then he became ill. Jacob knew being sick was a sign of his passing so he asked a messenger to send over Joseph, who essentially governed Egypt for the Pharaoh. He asked for Joseph to bury him in the Land of Israel. But why did he ask Joseph and not his other sons such as Judah or Reuven? The Midrash says that Jacob sent over Joseph because he was the only one who could fulfill his wish. Joseph was the secondary ruler of Egypt and he could actually fulfill Jacob’s wish. Jacob asked to be buried in Ma-arat HaMachpela [the cave of the patriarchs] and Joseph agreed.
Jacob proceeded to bless his children. Then Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons. Ephraim was the oldest and Manashe the younger brother. Usually you bless the oldest with the left hand and youngest with the right hand but this time Jacob put his left hand on Manashe and his right hand on Ephraim. Jacob did that because he knew that Manashe’s descendant is Joshua who led the Israelites into the land of Israel after Moshe passed away. That’s why on Friday night sons are blessed with “may you be like Ephraim and Manashe”, because Jacob wants us to live up to their example. It’s also interesting to note that Jacob was himself the youngest who received his father’s blessing first.
Suddenly Jacob dies, Joseph and his brothers bring him to the land of Israel and bury him, right before his death Jacob said something but no one could understand him. After they buried him and came back to Egypt, Joseph went to the pit with his brothers where they had thrown him in earlier in his life to sell Joseph as a slave out of their jealousy. According to the Midrash, Joseph’s brothers got scared, they believed Joseph was going to plan revenge on them. One of the brothers said “don’t kill us, we will do anything, we will even be your slave”. Joseph cried and said “I’m not upset; I came here to thank G-d, because if you didn’t do this to me, I wouldn’t be able to provide for you during famine and to bury our father, Jacob, in Israel”. He continued, “At first something seems bad, but then CHANGE takes its part out of it and shows the potential for good is possible. We can all sit here and cry or think about what this change has done for me”. We learn that Jacob’s last words to Joseph were that Joseph should forgive his brothers.
This brings us back to my topic, where I referred to the word “change”. This relates to my Parsha, or more specifically, Jacob. Jacob changed a lot throughout his life. The first example is with the whole Esau episode when Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Nonetheless, this “change” was done through deceit and, although Jacob may have felt correct in the first place, when he meets his brother many years later, he apologized. Jacob’s name was also changed to Yisrael, or Israel, which means to wrestle with G-d, because Jacob did wrestle with G-d, both physically and spiritually. Jacob changed the leadership of the Jewish people from Reuven, his eldest to Judah because of leadership traits he saw in Judah. Also as discussed above, Jacob changed the order of blessing his own grandchildren because of leadership traits, and finally the most important change is that he was honest at the end of his life.
When I first read the parsha, I thought when Jacob gives the blessings to his sons he is very harsh and unkind. But Jacob was being honest and hadn’t been honest earlier in his life; he lied to his father to get a blessing and a birthright which belonged to his older brother Esau. That wasn’t being truthful, but he changed and realized he needed to be honest. Pinchas Peli, a 20th century commentator, says that Jacob taught his sons an important lesson, so that they can change. His sons had behaved badly in throwing Josef into the pit, as well as acting violently to the people of Schechem, and Jacob, when giving his blessings, told them the truth about the evil deed they committed. He felt that honesty was necessary in order for them to change. Peli also says “such a criticism would help them find their way towards the future, in which they were destined to assume the roles as heads of each of the tribes of Israel”. Jacob learned through his life, that truthful criticism was needed, and that was a fundamental change from when he was younger. Another viewpoint is from Isaac Abravanel, a Portuguese commentator that lived in the 15th century, saying that when it was time for Jacob to die, he wanted them to understand why he switched around the leaders. Jacob knew what strengths and weaknesses each son had, so he wasn’t being brutal, he was being honest, about why he made the change in leadership so that they would accept it and not fight.
Now let’s get back to my first question, why is the Parsha called Vayechi, “and he lived” when the focus is on events around Jacob’s death? The answer is Jacob changed so much throughout his life that his own course of changes allowed him to live to great potential. Jewish people remember their loved ones, like my Grandfathers and my Aunt Bobbie, every year on the day of their death. This is not to remember how they died, but how they lived because we look at the whole journey of their life, not just the day they were born and we take the lessons from their life experiences. In Jacob’s case it was his need for honesty that changed.
This week marked the passing of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa who fought for the rights of all South Africans to enjoy equality and freedom. Nelson Mandela also changed a lot in his lifetime and we should remember his courage from a military struggle to peaceful cooperation. It would have been easy for Nelson Mandela to be angry, but he changed and chose a peaceful path.
Now I would like to talk about how change relates to me. My first change was being born in Malaysia, moving to Singapore, then on to Israel, and lastly, six years ago, settling in Boulder. I have also changed quite a bit in my Jewish life. Going to Camp Ramah in the Rockies is a great experience and has changed me in two ways, firstly I was always afraid of heights and this past summer I climbed an 800 foot rock which gave me lots of confidence and courage. More importantly, Ramah has exposed me to a Jewish community that is very joyful and demonstrates pride and confidence in our heritage. I am so fortunate to have these experiences.
A few years ago, when we first moved to Boulder, my Grandfather who I called Saba visited my family for Pesach. During that visit my Saba told my Mom that even though he is older and seems wise and would know all the answers, he is constantly struck by how little he knows. His feelings on life keep changing. To me, that’s what makes a good person; when you are willing to change. My first reaction was that it was strange that my 80-year old grandfather was still evaluating and changing his mind on things and learning, and admitting it…. Now I realize that he was becoming more truthful to himself about life, and mistakes he had made. Even though I think I know everything, (know everything), I still have an infinite amount to learn. Turning 13, I actually am just at the start of learning, changing, and evolving. Changing who you are makes you a good person. When you stop changing it means you stop trying and when you stop trying, it stops the opportunity to become a better person. Change is a lifelong job. Back to Yaakov, he changed his entire life, and that’s what made him a memorable character—hence the Parsha’s name, Vayechi. We remember Yaakov for his changes and struggles in life.
My parents are often honest with me. I can’t say that I always enjoy it, at all, but I suppose I would rather be told the truth by my parents then be lied to. An example is when my Mom tells me my homework isn’t done well when I think it is. While studying for my parsha I initially thought that Jacob was being cruel; but then I learned that by being honest, he was setting his kids up for success. And that’s even better then lying and making them feel good.
For my Bat Mitzvah project I’m volunteering at the Boulder Homeless preparing breakfast with other fellow Bonai Shalom community members. This relates to my theme of “change” because supporting these residents gives them the opportunity to get their lives back in order and make their own stamp on society. This is very critical change. At the Boulder Homeless Shelter, they not only get food but they also get medical care, counseling, and dental care. That helps the residents get back on their feet, and, hopefully bring permanent positive change to their lives. This experience has not only made me feel very fortunate about my own life and the opportunities that I have available, but also there are many things I take for granted that are not all that important. This has contributed to my own personal change where I learned that what I thought were high priorities are not necessarily the case. I look forward to continuing volunteering there and seeing how else it might open my eyes.
Yasher koach, Meirav! Boulder Jewish News encourages Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to submit their d’var torah for publication, so that the community may learn from our young adults. Information about Mitzvah/Tikkun Olam projects is also welcome. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.