Vayechi: Redemption of the Heart

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Red Heart Locked with Chain
08 Jan 2009

“Why is it so hard to find Parshas Vayechi?” is the oft frustrating lament of the ba’al koreh (Torah reader)

The answer of course is that Vayechi has the unique status of being the only stumah, i.e. the only Torah portion that begins in the middle of a masoretic paragraph – which only begs the question of why. Famous among the many notions is Rashi’s opening comment:

Why is this portion [of the Torah] completely closed? This is because once our father Yaakov died the eyes and hearts of Israel were “closed” because of the tzaras hashibud, (pain of the bondage) for they [the Egyptians] began to subjugate them

Our closed parsha connotes the closing of Jewish eyes and a Jewish heart – a predicament catalyzed by Yaakov’s death.

Two technical questions and one bomb come to mind.

  1. Why the emphasis on the eyes and heart?
  2. Rashi’s formulation tzaras hashibud (pain of bondage) seems superfluous (for it is implied the very next phrase “the Egyptians began to subjugate them”)

More fundamentally, Rashi’s poignant midrashic comment is openly contradicted by his own words! Flash forward to the Torah’s recording of Levi’s death:

The years of Levi’s life were one hundred and thirty-seven years.

Rashi comments:

Why are the years of Levi’s life specified [here]? To tell the length of time that the enslavement lasted, for as long as one of the Tribes (Yaakov’s sons) remained alive there was no enslavement, as it is said “Yosef and his brothers died,” and afterwards: “A new king arose,” and Levi outlived all of them.

Here’s the problem: Do the math and you will discover an 80 year gap between Yaakov’s (the father)’s and Levi’s (the son) demise (1). We are left wondering when the actual servitude began.

R. Gedalia Schorr, develops an incredible dual notion. Actual physical slavery began only with Levi’s death. Yaakov’s demise unleashed a more subtle process; a servitude prior to slavery. It is this former stage that Rashi alludes to with the phrase tzarat hashibud – the misery of bondage and is encompassed by the eyes and heart.

Note the remarkable spiritual metaphysics that are at work here.

Yaakov in particular and the Patriarchs/Matriarchs generally, infused incredible holiness within Klal Yisrael. In Ramban’s language they were a merkava(2), a conduit for the Divine presence, to the point that the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) derived its essential sanctity from them. Yaakov’s passing was a micro churban, akin to the destruction of the Temple. His death signified the closing of Klal Yisrael’s collective eyes and heart(3).

Practically, this meant that the intellectual (eyes) and emotional (heart) sensitivity of the Jew to the constant presence of God in one’s life – their God consciousness, had vanished. Without spiritual rootedness, it was only a matter of time before the physical servitude would commence. With Levi’s death, all personal conceptions of greatness and sanctity were completely obliterated. Lacking any sense of their own holiness, the Egyptians were able to devastate Klal Yisrael.

And so it was for over a century. After experiencing indignity upon indignity and internalizing the Mitzrayim experience, the Jews became numb to their plight, lost their voice and almost completely forgot their identity. In Rav Soloveichik’s words (“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” – Tradition, 1978):

The animal is exposed to pain; so is the slave. When the slave meets with pain he reacts like the animal, uttering a sharp, shrill sound. However, the howl of the beast, like the shriek of the slave, lasts a moment in the darkness and hush of the night. In a split second all is silent again. There is no aftermath to the pain-sensation of the animal or the slave; there follows no complaint, no request, no protest, no question of why and what. … The needs of a slave are, like his shriek, not human: the etiology of his needs is exclusively biological…No complaint was lodged, no sigh, no cry uttered. Only an agonizing un-human shriek would penetrate the weird silence of the night. The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute. … Torture was taken for granted. They thought this was the way it had to be. The pain did not precipitate suffering.

But then along came Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jews begin to pray. Something remarkable happens – as the Zohar describes:

When Moshe came to the Jewish people the voice returnedכי אתא משה אתא קול …

Moshe davka (precisely), the enigmatic interloper from the royal palace pries open the Jewish mouth. How so?

Moses, by defending the helpless Jew, restored sensitivity to the dull slaves. Suddenly they realized that all that pain, anguish, humiliation and cruelty, all the greed and intolerance of man vis-à-vis his fellow man is evil. This realization brought in its wake not only sharp pain but a sense of suffering as well.

Along came Moshe Rabbeinu, who went out to his brothers (Shemos 2:11) and saw their suffering. He knows that this is not the way it should be. At great personal risk, he stands up and responds. The average Jew began to ponder – who is this Moshe? They realized he’s fun unzerer – he’s one of ours. He’s what we should aspire towards.

And how did it all begin? Listen to the remarkable words of Rashi, as he describes Moshe coming on the scene:

Nasan einav v’libo lihiyot meitzar imaheimhe gave his eyes and heart to feel their pain.

Moshe, by giving of eyes and heart, reopens what Yaakov’s death had closed.

Stage two redemption, the physical liberation, had to be preceded by the spiritual redemption – the recognition of who the Jew is and from whence he came. After seeing Moshe, Jews began to reflect: What has happened to us? How far from being the spiritual heirs of Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov have we strayed! Why have we been silent all these years? From this reflection emerged a sense of existential awareness. They remember, finally cry out to God – who of course “remembers” and has been waiting all these years.

Now that Mitzrayim has left the Jew, the Jew is ready to leave Mitzrayim. As 21st Century Jews who ponder our own state of exile, let us find our Yiddishe oigen and hearts so that the Almighty will remember his children.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Yaakov was 130 and died at the age of 147 for a total of a 17 year sojourn. Yosef was 39 when the brothers came down to Egypt and Levi was ~ 43 when he descended as he was born a bit before Yosef. (Sisei Chachamim puts the age gap at 4 years, even though this is academic as 11 sons were born within 6 years.) and died at 137, totaling 94 years in Egypt – a gap of 77 years.

2. Cf. Ramban, Shemos 1:1

3. Remarkably, Beis hamikdash is described as the place where God’s “eyes and heart” are constantly present. Eyes and heart can be co-opted as we see in the verse of v’lo sasuru acharei levavchem v’acharaei einechem – do not stray after your hearts and eyes

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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