Parshat Vayechi: A Retrospective – Was All This Really Necessary?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah Text – Bereishit,” co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

A Retrospective: Was All This Really Necessary?

Context

Jewish history effectively begins twice. An introductory, pre-national era is launched when Avraham journeys to Canaan at God’s command. This period, the patriarchal era, comes to an end with Yaakov’s death.

Our story then begins again with the birth of the Jewish nation – as we journey from the cauldron of slavery, through the wrenching Exodus, to the dramatic Revelation at Sinai.

Questions

Why does the Torah include the stories of the patriarchal era? Why not begin, as the first Rashi on Bereishit suggests,1 with the national period of Jewish history?

At first glance, this question is clearly rhetorical. We have, in our studies, only scratched the surface of the monumental lessons to be learned from the lives of the patriarchs, matriarchs and their families. The Torah would be incomplete without these lessons, which remain as relevant today as the day the events occurred.

And yet, one can’t help but wonder if there isn’t, perhaps, something more – lessons to be learned not only from the specific stories of the patriarchal era but from the very existence of this introductory period itself. One can’t help but wonder why God would choose to begin Jewish history twice.

Approaches

At least three foundations essential to our national character are laid during the patriarchal era. These underpinnings serve as the best arguments of all for the inclusion of this seminal period in the chronicle of Jewish history.

A
The patriarchal era establishes the significance of the yachid (the individual).

The patriarchal era is a time when there is literally no one else, when the sum total of Jewish experience is defined by the lives and dreams of individuals: Avraham, Sara, Yitzchak, Rivka, Yaakov, Rachel and Leah. Their stories are recorded to remind us, even after the dawn of the national era, of the continuing, inestimable importance of each individual.

We are meant to feel, in every era and in every generation, that the survival of our people depends upon each of us alone, as certainly as our existence depended upon Avraham in his day. Each of us has something unique to offer. The loss, God forbid, of one person’s contribution leaves our entire people irreparably diminished.

The tzibur (community) could not be allowed to overwhelm the individual or stifle individuality. Our nation’s birth, therefore, had to wait until personal value was fully established.

B
The patriarchal era establishes the importance of the Jewish family and home.

In a very real sense, this introductory period of Jewish history can be seen as a journey towards one specific moment, the moment when Yaakov lies on his deathbed surrounded by his children. Unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, each of whom had progeny who were lost to Jewish history, Yaakov now knows that all of his children intend to follow his ways. After three generations of struggle with outside influences and internal turmoil, the Hebrew family is finally whole. The patriarchal era can now safely end.

The journey of the patriarchal households to that moment teaches us that before we could become a nation we had to be a family. The primacy of the home, so clearly established in the patriarchal era, is underscored centuries later, during the events which mark our nation’s birth.

On the very eve of the Exodus, God commands the Hebrew slaves to mark the impending birth of their nation in a very strange way. In place of participating in constitutional conventions, mass rallies or declarations of independence, each Israelite is instructed to return to his home. There, together with his extended family unit, he is to mark the dawning of freedom through the consumption of the Pesach sacrifice, essentially a family meal.

By insisting upon a retreat to the home as a prelude to our nation’s birth, God delivers a simple yet powerful message: As you begin your journey, remember that your survival will depend upon the health of the family unit. If the family is strong, if the home fulfills its educational role, your people will be strong and your nation will endure.

This message is underscored again at Sinai as God opens his instructions to Moshe preparatory to revelation: “Thus shall you say to the House of Yaakov and speak to the People of Yisrael…” Do not assume that, since you are now the “People of Yisrael,” you can, therefore, set the “House of Yaakov” aside. The family unit remains of primary importance.

The Jewish home is and always has been the single most important educational unit in the perpetuation of our people. What our children learn at home, through example and word, shapes both their knowledge of and their attitude towards Jewish tradition and practice. The home’s centrality finds its roots in the earliest moments of our people’s story, in the journey of the patriarchal families, centuries before our nation is created.

C
The patriarchal era establishes a preexisting national legacy.

The value of our possessions, whether material or spiritual, increases exponentially when those possessions are perceived as a legacy from previous generations. A beautiful pearl necklace is infinitely more precious if it is an heirloom which belonged to a beloved mother or grandmother.

Because of the patriarchal era, our nation is born with a preexisting legacy. By the time the Exodus and Revelation launch the national era, we already possess a history. Our dreams reflect the dreams of our forefathers and our goals represent the fulfillment of their hopes. The Land of Israel is not an unknown destination, but a cherished land of which we have already heard countless tales, a land promised to our ancestors centuries before. The Torah and its commandments are not foreign concepts but the expected realization of covenants already contracted between God and those who preceded us.

The phenomenon of a pre-existing legacy lends a richness and depth to the moment of our nation’s birth that could not have been created in any other way. Even more, however, this phenomenon sets the initial paradigm for the ongoing process of mesora, the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next (see Toldot 1, Approaches E). From the very beginning, our mission is personal, a mission shaped not only by God’s will but also by the memories of people and ages gone by. Those warm memories, together with countless others created across the years, form the ever-growing human dimension of our heritage, a dimension essential to the mesora process, a dimension originating in the patriarchal era.

Points to Ponder

As our examination of the patriarchal era draws to a close, we gain a real appreciation of the formative nature of this pre-national period. The foundations that are built during the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs remain essential to our survival. Sadly, these foundations face serious challenge in our day as the one institution most critical to the cultivation of individual development and to the transmission of personal mesora falls short in the fulfillment of its obligations.

One can argue that the single greatest failing of today’s diaspora Jewish community is not assimilation. Assimilation is, after all, a symptom, not a cause. The single greatest failing of our community is the abdication by the family unit of its educational responsibility.

Countless young Jews are now raised in homes devoid of concrete observance of Jewish law or custom. These youngsters never have the opportunity to experience the beauty and depth of their people’s tradition. Judaism becomes for them, at best, a curiosity, and, at worst, an unwanted burden to be discarded at the first possible opportunity.

Even many affiliated families relegate, in large measure, the training of their children to the synagogue, school and Jewish community center. In the Conservative and Reform communities, after-school programs are frequently a child’s main exposure to Jewish tradition. No matter how successful these programs may be, they can never be a substitute for home Within much of today’s Orthodox community, as well, compromise often marks the level of personal family practice. The expectation is that children will learn the beauty of Torah study, the power of prayer, the centrality of ethics, somewhere else. If children never see their parents study, however, they will grow up believing that Torah study is important for children but not for adults. If they sit next to parents who talk in synagogue, rather than pray, they will never learn that prayer has any real importance. If they observe their parents cheating on income taxes or engaging in questionable business practices, they will learn to cut corners in the ethical realm. If the everyday behavior modeled by their elders is self-centered and aggressive, they will never learn true regard for the sensibilities of others. And if Shabbat in their home is observed in rote, unthinking fashion, they will never see Shabbat as a day of beauty.

Finally, many of our children today are denied the lessons traditionally taught through exposure to the extended family. The work of the Nazis continues to yield bitter fruit as countless youngsters grow up never knowing their grandparents. Other young people, fortunate enough to have living relatives, nonetheless experience limited exposure to them, due to our mobile, geographically fragmented society. So many of the experiential elements of our heritage, from Shabbat and the holidays to ethical behavior, can only be properly taught through the example set within the home. The home, and only the home, provides the environment essential for each generation’s personal introduction into religious tradition and observance.

From time immemorial, we have survived and thrived because of the life examples set by parents, grandparents and extended family. Those individuals, from Avraham and Sara onward, beckon us to set examples of our own.