Vayechi: A lesson learned

…and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Am I instead of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Bereishit 30:1-3)

Joseph’s brothers…sent this message to Joseph…”Please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers…flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Bereishit 50:16-21)

His wife is desperate for a child:
she turns her anguished eyes to him
and pleads for children
lest she die. He does not see
her tearful gaze, nor hear
her pain-filled voice.
He tells her fiercely
that he’s not
a substitute
for God.

And now the brothers
of that yearned-for child
are fearful of revenge. They bow
before him, eyes downcast
beseeching clemency.
He registers their anxious gaze,
and hears their guilt-filled tones.
He tells them gently
that he’s not
a substitute
for God.


In a commentary on Parashat Vayechi from 2012, http://learn.jtsa.edu/content/commentary/va-yehi/5773/its-not-what-you-say, Dr Deborah Miller notes an extremely interesting repetition of the phrase “Am I to be instead of God?” which occurs both in Parashat Vayeitsei and this week’s Parasha, Vayechi. (The only difference in the Hebrew is in the use of the word “I” – in the former it is “anochi” and in the latter “ani“).
Jacob and Joseph utter virtually the same phrase, but from the context, Dr Miller maintains that the tone is totally different.
In the first instance, Rachel sees her sister Leah is already the mother of four sons, yet she is barren. Desperate, she turns to Jacob and says, “Give me children or I’ll die!” Jacob, infuriated, responds that he is not instead of God. The Rabbis criticize Jacob for his insensitivity (his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebekah’s barrenness to be alleviated and we are not even told that she requested this of him). Dr Miller imagines his tone to be sarcastic and belittling.
And now we encounter the same words, this time from the mouth of that very same longed-for child. Long after the death of Rachel, and just after the death of Jacob, the brothers fear that Joseph will now take revenge for the crime which they perpetrated against him. They send a messenger to him (the Midrash tells us this was was Bilhah) and seemingly fabricate that before his death, their father had urged them to beg Joseph’s forgiveness, and had charged Joseph to forgive them.
Dr Miller says, “In this story, Joseph realizes how desperate the brothers are, how vulnerable. He cries when he hears them, realizing that they still have no understanding that he has changed and has no petty wish for vengeance. They fling themselves at his feet, declaring themselves his slaves, and he says, “Fear not, for am I instead of God?” Here we imagine a totally different tone of voice: it is soft, reassuring, and compassionate.”
She continues, “Jacob and Joseph use the exact same words, but one uses them to demean and the other to reassure. One is callous, one is caring. Neither is really talking about God; rather, each is talking about his relationship with a person or people who are at a low point in life, and in need of emotional sustenance.”
Dr Miller perceives a great irony. She points out that in Jacob’s case, “…at every turn, at every transition in his life, God has been a living, encouraging presence for him. From the time he flees his home in mortal fear of Esau’s wrath after tricking him out of their father’s blessing, through the time he runs from Laban, his father-in-law, to the time he decides to move down to Egypt — in every instance, God reassures Jacob that He is with him. This is truly love, freely given.
“And in Joseph’s life? God never speaks directly to Joseph, yet Joseph always refers to God, defers to God, and attributes his attainments to God.”
Dr Miller concludes, “In that way, we are much more like Joseph, who makes the effort to make God part of his life. And yet, we are also like Jacob, who may not deserve to have God’s reassurance, but receives it anyway. We are called Yisra’el, named for the less noble of these two men. This is enormously heartening: If God can love Jacob, God can surely love us.”

On the surface, the text certainly implies the great and surprising insensitivity displayed by Jacob towards his beloved Rachel, compared with the kindness with which Joseph addresses his less deserving brothers. However, there are Midrashic descriptions that fill in the sparse text and envision conversations that might mitigate the harsh view taken of Jacob. In a commentary (in Hebrew) from 2012 on Vayechi, http://www.vorts.co.il/?p=1247 entitled, ” “Am I a substitute for God” – from the depths of trouble to the depths of prayer”, Yoav Milis addresses Jacob’s words. He brings the background from Midrash Rabbah, in which Rachel asks Jacob to pray for her to have children as his father Isaac prayed to God to alleviate his mother Rebekah’s barrenness. Rashi’s commentary on this has Jacob responding, “You say I should do as my father did; but my circumstances are not the same as his. My father had no children at all, I, however, have children. He has withheld children from you, not from me!” This actually seems to do little to enhance our view of Jacob. The Maharshal (Rabbi Solomon Luria*) wonders about the meaning of this response of Jacob’s: “And just because Jacob had children, had he no obligation to pray for Rachel? And why did he become angry with her because of it? And do we not already know that prophets who pray for others are answered, as with Elisha and Elijah?!” Milis continues that the Maharshal’s opinion is that Jacob tells Rachel that although he has already prayed for her, his prayer is not acceptable before God. The Maharshal conjectures that Rachel calls Jacob wicked, which is what enrages Jacob, and then he explains to her that when Isaac prayed, he prayed on behalf of himself and Rebekah, both of whom were barren, but here, there was only the merit of one of them, Rachel, who was barren, and therefore Jacob’s prayer had not been heard.
The Midrash continues, “God said to Jacob, “Is this how one answers the anguished of heart? By your life, your sons will stand one day before her son [Joseph].” ”
The Ramban suggests that Jacob’s harsh response distresses Rachel even more in her anguished state. She is sorely disappointed for she hoped that salvation would come through Jacob’s prayer, so she prays herself from the depths of her pain, and later we learn that “God remembered Rachel and God heard her and opened her womb.” (Bereishit 30:22) According to God’s words in the Midrash, though, Jacob should have responded kindly to his afflicted wife, with gentle, pleasant words, instead of his harsh response.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, too, addresses the question of how, according to the Midrash, Jacob could have been so cutting as to say to Rachel that he was not like his father who had no children when he prayed, while Jacob himself already had. Rabbi Amar explains that in the Talmud (Yevamot 64, 71) and in the Midrash Tanchuma (Toledot 89) the Sages teach that the founding Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the people were barren, because the Holy One delights in the prayers of the righteous. And the Ba’alei Musar** had great difficulty with this idea of the Sages, asking, “And if the Patriarchs and Matriarchs had not been barren, they would not have prayed?!” But [they taught] “there is no comparison between the prayer of the heartbroken and despairing, which emanates from the heart, and that of someone who is in a good situation.” And so, continues Rabbi Amar, “We find in the holy Zohar (Parashat Balak) that the prayer of the afflicted rises above that of the righteous. And why? Because his prayer comes from a broken place…and therefore has the power to break down all barriers and reach God.” On the basis of this, Rabbi Amar says we can understand Jacob’s words to Rachel. He suggests that Jacob does, of course, pray to God on her behalf, and she knows it. She begs him to pray from the depths of his heart, believing that God will answer such a prayer, as He did for Isaac. She needs a prayer that will bring her children. But Jacob replies, “Am I a substitute for God? – How can I promise you that my prayer will be accepted? Because of his [own] barrenness, my father’s prayer was truly from a broken, anguished place, and so it was answered. But because I am not barren, I cannot reach those depths of despair and the level of prayer required. Because God has withheld children from you, your prayer can plumb those depths from a place I cannot reach, so the chances of your prayers being answered are much greater than mine.”

The Rabbis also comment on the same words, “Am I a substitute for God” emanating from Joseph’s mouth.
Rabbi Alexander Sender Gedaliah Tchórz***asks, “Why did Joseph, in the middle of words of encouragement and comfort, have to stir up old wounds and remind them now that “you intended me harm”? – [We learn from here] these are actually words of encouragement: Don’t be afraid, for what evil thing can I, flesh and blood, do to you, even if I want to – because – am I a substitute for God? – is it in the power of a person to do evil to another against the will of the Creator? And the proof – “and you intended me harm” and even so, “God intended it for good” and therefore even if I were to intend to harm you, God would turn it to good.”

*Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510 – 1573) was one of the great Ashkenazic poskim (decisors of Jewish law) and teachers of his time. He is known for his work of Halacha, Yam Shel Shlomo, and his Talmudic commentary Chochmat Shlomo. Rabbi Luria is also referred to as Maharshal or Rashal.
Born in the city of Poznań (Posen), in the Kingdom of Poland, his father, Yechiel Luria, was the rabbi of the Lithuanian city of Slutzk and the son of the eminent Talmudist Miriam Luria. The Luria family claims descent from Rashi. He studied in Lublin and later served as Rabbi in Brisk and various Lithuanian communities for 15 years. Subsequently he became head of the famed Lublin Yeshiva, which attracted students from all over Europe. Due to various internal problems in the yeshiva, he opened his own yeshiva. The building, known as the “Maharshal’s shul”, remained intact until World War II.
He has been described as something of a maverick with regard to his methodology: “Luria rejected contemporary talmudic and legal methodology. He dismissed the then current belief that legal opinions of earlier generations were almost sacrosanct. Luria maintained that his generation had just as equal access to knowledge as those that came before it. Luria believed that it was incumbent upon scholars in each generation to comb the sources from their talmudic beginnings through the tosafists to their own day, analyzing and weighing each matter and all opinions before coming to a well-considered conclusion. To draw legal conclusions on the basis of a simple majority among three leading medieval authorities as Joseph Karo had done in his sixteenth century code of Jewish law, the Shulhan ‘aruk, was, in Luria’s opinion, simply wrong. Unlike his contemporaries, Luria was unfettered by the weight of medieval halakic traditions and had the independence and boldness of character to overturn almost any opinion in his passionate search for truth.” (Edward Aaron Fram, “Jewish Law and Social and Economic Realities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Poland.”(Ph.D. diss. Columbia University, 1991).
Rabbi Luria’s major work of Halacha was written on sixteen tractates of the Talmud; however, it is extant on only seven. In it, Maharshal analyzes key sugyot (passages) and decides between various authorities as to the practical halacha. Maharshal, famously, objected to Isserles’s method of presenting halachic rulings without discussing their derivation. He wrote Yam Shel Shlomo to “probe the depths of the halacha” and to clarify the process by which those halachot are reached.
Chochmat Shlomo is a gloss, and comments, on the text of the Talmud. One function of this work is to correct textual errors. In establishing the correct text Maharshal scrutinized the published editions of the Talmud as well as the commentaries of Rashi, Tosafot, and other Rishonim. His comments were later published by his son; an abridged version of Chochmat Shlomo appears in nearly all editions of the Talmud today, at the end of each tractate. The original, separately printed version, is far more extensive.

**Ba’alei Musar were Rabbis who were eminent proponents of the Musar movement – a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in the 19th century in Eastern Europe, particularly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term musar is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning moral conduct, instruction or discipline. The term was used by the Musar movement to refer to efforts to further ethical and spiritual discipline. The Musar Movement made significant contributions to Jewish Ethics.

***Rabbi Alexander Sender Gedaliah Tchórz (1859-1948) was born in Nowy Dwór, Poland and learned in the yeshivot of eminent rabbis of the period in Poland. He was a ritual slaughterer (shochet) in many communities and later the chief shochet in Włocławek, and was known for his great knowledge of Torah as well as for his good deeds. (His books on the laws of ritual slaughter and ritually unfit foods served as text books on the subject in Poland and Lithuania.) He was also a mohel (ritual circumcisor) and would performed this for the baby sons of poor families without payment, and pay for the mandatory festive meal from his own pocket. His spare time was occupied in learning Torah day and night, and writing down his new interpretations. He was a lauded orator as well.
He joined the nascent Zionist movement and invested time and money in its cause. He was an early member of the Mizrachi movement in Poland and was a delegate at the 12th Zionist Congress in Carlsbad Czechoslovakia in 1921. He spoke at meetings throughout many cities in order to raise funds and support for the Zionist movement and was unfazed by those who opposed it. A group of anti-Zionist Chasidim attempted to invalidate his credentials as a shochet, and reported him to the authorities, resulting in his arrest, once by the Russian police and once by the Polish police on charges of being a communist. He founded a Hebrew school in Włocławek.
In 1923 or 1924, already a grandfather of some 40 grandchildren, he visited Palestine, as it was then, and from there, announced to his family and congregation that he intended to remain. The Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi A.I. Kook who knew him well, authorised for him to obtain a position as Rabbi and shochet in Kfar Chitin, where he became influential also in the neighboring areas. His great love of the land helped him endure the privations of living in a remote village in unbearably hard living conditions. When the attempt to establish the community failed and the residents dispersed, Rabbi Tchórz moved to Benai Berak and resumed his previous occupation as a shochet, until he retired at a ripe old age, and devoted himself to community affairs and teaching Torah as he had done all his life, both abroad and in Israel. He died in Tel Aviv in 1948.

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