Parshat Vayechi: Forget and Forgive

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Hand Reaching Out
04 Jan 2007

Part One:

In the final hours of his corporeal existence, Yaakov Avinu gathers together his 12 sons, the progenitors of the tribes of Israel, to reveal to them what lies in store for the Jewish nation at the end of the cycle of time which we know as Olam HaZeh – this world.

However, at the precise moment when the hearts and minds of his sons are at their keenest, Hashem withdraws His shechina and Yaakov’s mind becomes clouded, obscuring the revelation, leaving the future veiled.

The tractate Pesachim 56a informs us that when Yaakov realized that Hashem had revoked the revelation and the clear message of the future was suddenly closed to him, he looked at his 12 sons with apprehension. He feared that perhaps one or more of his sons was a heretic. For just as his grandfather, Avraham, had begotten the sinful Yishmael, and his father, Yitzchak, had begotten the evil Eisav, he too might be cursed with a wayward son.

Recognizing their father’s concerns and wanting to allay his fears, the brothers turned towards him and recited in unison.

Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokaynu HaShem Echad,

and Yaakov responded: Baruch shem kevod mal’chuto l’olam va’ed

Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever

The halacha today is that we recite “shema” aloud, but “baruch shem” is said silently.

Difficulties arise from this gemara:

  1. Why is “Shema” being recited here? Neither Avraham nor Yitzchak ever said “Shema”, even on their death beds, as has become the custom in our time.
  2. The one reciting ”Shema” here is not Yaakov, who is about to die, but his sons?
  3. Why are we obliged to recite the six words of “Shema” twice daily?
  4. Why is “Baruch shem”…. recited silently?

I suggest:

The brothers were waiting impatiently to hear from their father the details of the future ge’ula (redemption). When Yaakov realized that HaShem did not want specifics to be disclosed, he turned to his sons suspecting that one of them was the cause.

At that moment, in order to assuage Yaakov’s fears that one of his sons was sinful, Hashem brought His Holy Shechina onto the brothers and they began to prophesy the future redemption, albeit in general terms and not in detail. They prophesied that the future ge’ula would come about in three stages:

  1. Shema Yisrael
  2. HaShem Elokaynu
  3. HaShem Echad

In the initial stage of ‘Shema Yisrael’, HaShem’s name is not mentioned. This stage will see the ingathering of Bnei Yisrael from the far corners of the globe. They will return for a variety of reasons, many not of a religious nature; such as anti-semitism, escape from totalitarian regimes and secular Zionism.

The second stage of “Hashem Elokaynu” now includes the name ‘Elokaynu’, and will be characterized by the return of the Jewish people to Hashem through unprecedented miracles of salvation from the hands of our enemies.

The third stage, “Hashem Echad” will mark the unity of Klal Yisrael under the leadership of the Mashiach, with the rebuilt Bet HaMikdash on the Temple Mount.

Yaakov, upon hearing the revelations voiced by his sons, adds that there is yet a fourth state – ‘Baruch shem k’vod mal’chuto le’olam va’ed’, signaling the universal acceptance of Hashem’s total mastery as Creator and Preserver of all things.

Halacha states that the first three stages be said aloud, because they pertain exclusively to the Jewish nation, but the fourth stage, which will be recited by all mankind is out of our realm, and so is to be recited silently until the time when the tikun – the restoration and repentance of mankind will bring us back full circle to the days of Gan Eden.

And the hint of this is portrayed on Yom Kippur, the ultimate day of kapara (pardon) when we recite ‘Baruch Shem…..’ out loud.

Today, with a near majority of Jews in the world having returned to Eretz Yisrael, we stand on the seam of history between the first and second stages of “Shema Yisrael”.

The desires and plans of our many enemies to destroy Medinat Yisrael, signify the approach of the second stage when we, in Eretz Yisrael, shall witness miracles far surpassing those of the exodus from Egypt, as the gemara tells us at the end of the first chapter of tractate Berachot. We are about to witness a religious awakening among the people of Eretz Yisrael unparalleled since the time of Ezra HaSofer.

Part Two:

At the end of the parsha, we read of a baffling encounter between Yosef and his brothers. They prostrate themselves before Yosef, reminding him that their father, Yaakov, had warned him not to seek revenge. To this Yosef answers:

Ha’ta’chat E-lo’kim ano’chi!

– Am I God’s messenger (agent) in this matter?!


  1. Where in the Torah do we find that Yaakov told Yosef to refrain from punishing his brothers?
  2. At the time of their father’s death, the brothers and Yosef had already lived together in harmony for 17 years. Yosef is even quoted several times as assuring his brothers that what happened was the hand of God; so why are the brothers now suddenly fearful of Yosef?
  3. What did Yosef mean when he said that he is not God’s messenger?

I suggest the following:

Yaakov did indeed warn Yosef to forgive and forget.

In parshat Vayigash 46:29, when Yaakov meets Yosef after many long and miserable years of separation, we are informed that Yosef collapsed in his father’s arms and cried bitterly. Rashi comments that the verse describes what Yosef was doing, but what about Yaakov? So, quoting the Midrash, Rashi informs us that Yaakov was saying “shema”. But, if it was time to recite Kriat Shema, Yosef should be reciting it together with Yaakov, and if it was not the time, why was Yaakov saying “Shema”?

The Midrash is in fact informing us of Yaakov’s most profound thoughts at this most dramatic moment in his life.

Yaakov’s life suddenly passed before him. The good, sweet days in his parents’ home before having to run away; the meeting and marriage to the beautiful, righteous Rachel; the birth of his children and his resettlement in Eretz Yisrael.

In contrast, there were the bitter days; the days of strife with his brother Eisav; the death of his beloved Rachel; and, worst of all, the disappearance of his son Yosef.

Until that time, Yaakov’s approach to life was a duality. That which is harsh and disquieting is an emanation of midat ha’din (the harsh quality of justice) and all which is pleasant emanates from the midat ha’rachamim (the quality of compassion).

Yosef’s disappearance was midat ha’din in all its ferocity.

Suddenly, at that moment, when seeing Yosef and his impossible rise to power in a foreign and threatening land by the hand of God, Yaakov realized the misconception in his world view.

The disappearance of Yosef, which, in his mind, was the epitome of midat ha’din, was in fact midat ha’rachamim, for it prepared the way to provide sustenance for the Jewish family (nation) at that very difficult time.

At that moment, Yaakov understood that the dichotomy of midat ha’din and midat ha’rachamim was erroneous, for, in essence, they both are midat harachamim. He then calls out, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokaynu Hashem E’chad” not as reciting Kriat Shema, but in reaction to the discovery of a higher understanding of man’s relationship with Hashem.

Yaakov, whose name is now Yisrael, calls out to himself:

“Shema Yisrael” – listen (or understand) Yisrael

“Hashem” which alludes to the quality of compassion

“Elokaynu” – which alludes to the quality of harsh justice

which I believed to be two contrasting entities of God’s world, are

“Hashem Echad” – inherently the one quality of compassion

Upon realizing this, Yaakov, at that moment, attempted to relate to Yosef this very crucial lesson – that the experiences which befell him at the hands of his brothers were God’s way of providing salvation for the family.

Yaakov calls out so that Yosef would hear his words: “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokay’nu (the apparent two qualities of harsh justice and compassion) Hashem E’chad” are essentially midat ha’rachamim.

Here Yaakov was telling Yosef to forgive and forget. However, Yosef was too hurt as a victim to do so. He seeks not only compensation, but also justice for the perpetrators of his and his father’s suffering.

In the years that Yosef lived with his brothers in apparent harmony, the brothers were cognizant of one brutal fact – Yosef never once said “sa’lach’ti” – I forgive you. So, when Yaakov was no longer present in the family circle, the brothers prepared for the worst.

In addition, their fears were compounded by an event, which is recorded in the Midrash.

Upon their journey to bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, the entourage passed through the Valley of Dotan, north of Shechem. At a certain spot, Yosef gave the order to halt, and descended from his imperial carriage, walked several meters to the edge of a pit, knelt down and peered into the deep abyss. This was the very same pit into which he had been cast by his brothers; that same pit, empty of water but filled with snakes and scorpions.

Yosef knelt there a while and then returned without a word — to continue the journey to Hevron. This was a mortifying signal for the brothers – Yosef had neither forgotten, nor forgiven.

On their return to Egypt, the brothers prostrated themselves before Yosef and reminded him of their father’s message when reciting “Shema Yisrael”- that their cruelty to Yosef was in fact midat ha’rachamim of God, so they do not deserve to be punished.

Yosef replied that they need not worry for “ha’tachat Elokim anochi” – I am not God’s messenger (in this matter.) [I] will not punish you, but punishment will be enacted when God sees fit.

And indeed, punishment was meted out to the Jewish nation 1700 years later, at the time of the Roman conquest of Eretz Yisrael – in the episode of the ten martyred rabbanim. The Roman governor, after reading the story of Yosef and his brothers, informs the leading rabbis of the time that since the days of the Brothers, Am Yisrael has not seen ten such great men in one generation. So, they, the rabbanim, will stand in lieu of the ten brothers and pay the price for their crime of kidnapping and selling a fellow Jew, in- keeping with the laws of the Torah.

Yosef, the victim, informed his brothers that he is not the messenger of God to mete out their due punishment, which came about in — time.

Perhaps this is the reason that the episode of the ten martyrs is included in the Yom Kippur liturgy. For on this solemn day, despite the fact that we are victims of other peoples’ immorality, we should forgive and forget, because not to do so might enact regrettable heavenly repercussions.

Part Three:

Yosef told his brothers, to assuage their fears, that he is not God’s messenger to punish them.

A word with regard to being a “messenger.”

The Torah recognizes the institution of agency (sh’lichut) whose agents act in the best interest of the dispatcher. One may dispatch an agent to purchase or sell real estate, to bring a korban to the Bet Hamikdash and even to betroth a wife.

Not long ago, an incident occurred here which deserves comment.

A highly respected rabbi from the USA visited a certain battalion in Tzahal, and among some very appropriate remarks, he added something to the effect that “you are our sh’lichim” – our agents in the struggle for Eretz Yisrael.

I know that the rabbi intended no malice, but rabbis have to be doubly careful what they say.

In the agent/dispatcher relationship, the halacha requires a degree of similarity, i.e., both must be of age, both must have a standing before the law, etc. I would have asked the rabbi if there exists that similarity between our young soldiers and the Jews in the Galut.

Would it not be truer to say that our sons are an entity apart from those who although they might sympathize with them, do everything to protect their own children from donning the uniform of today’s Maccabees?

Would it be not be accurate to state that if there were a method of measuring pain, then the suffering of one young soldier in Hadassah hospital is overwhelmingly greater than the totality of all the pain felt by the Jewish people in the Galut for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the last 60 years?

Yosef said, “ha’tachat Elokim ano’chi” – I am not God’s messenger (in this matter). I assert that our sons can proudly say, “we are God’s messengers in the rebirth of His people in Eretz Yisrael”.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.