Parshat Vayechi

Parshat Vayechi

Sermon Saturday Morning


  1. Shabbat Shalom

  1. We have, at last, reached the end of the Book of Genesis. The time of the Patriarchs is closing and a new period of Jewish history will begin with the Book of Exodus next week. The family of Jacob will become “B’nai Yisrael” the People of Israel. The rest of the Torah will be about the history of this remarkable nation and how it shaped, through its God and through history, the course of Western Civilization. For now, we have this final pastoral scene, of the aged and blind Jacob, offering his blessings to his children as he prepares to die.

  1. The final face of the Israelites takes shape in our Parsha. There are to be thirteen tribes, not twelve. Jacob carves out an extra portion for his favorite son, Joseph, assigning two tribes that are named after Joseph’s sons. There will be no tribe of Joseph, instead there will be a tribe of Menashe and a tribe of Ephraim. Usually we talk about twelve tribes because the tribe of Levi was assigned no land and had no territory it could call home. I should note that the tribe of Levi was considered to be a very spiritual tribe; they are the tribe from which the priests, the Cohanim, will be taken and the rest of the tribe will serve in the Mishkan and the Temple. And yet, Jacob, in this week’s parsha, has nothing good to say about Levi and Shimon. Jacob considered them to be violent and vengeful. It is always interesting how these character traits play out over the life of the tribes.

  1. Finally we see the prophecy of Abraham beginning to play itself out in the life of his great grandchildren. God had promised the first patriarch that his descendants would become like the stars in the sky, more numerous than can be counted. Abraham, however had only one son who followed on the path of God. That son, Isaac, also had only one son who will follow the proper spiritual path. Jacob now has twelve sons and they will all stay on the path that Abraham created. There is a Midrash that Jacob was worried that his sons, like his father and uncle, would stray from the worship of the one God. His sons reassured him saying, “Shema Yisrael, H’ Elohaynu H’ Echad” “Listen (our father) Israel, H’ is our God, H’ alone. We are not like your family, divided between monotheists and idolaters, we all worship the one God.”

  1. The parsha almost begs us to see the difference between the advice Jacob gives his children and the advice King David gives his son Solomon in the Haftara for today. As I said before, the Haftara reads like a script from the Godfather movie. The king is advising his son how to reward and punish those who were friends or enemies of the king. The touching words of Jacob are contrasted to the political reality of the Israelite royal court.

  1. On these clear cold Florida nights, we too can look up at the stars and see for ourselves what Abraham was shown thousands of years ago. The stars today are as beyond counting as they were for the Patriarch. We can estimate the number of stars in the sky, but counting them is still impossible. The number of stars we can see constantly changes based on the quality of our vision and the amount of lights that are on the ground near where we may be standing. I guess that too is just like the Jewish people; we often can’t agree on who is to be counted as a Jew and who should not be counted. It is as hard to know how many Jews there are in the world as it is to count the stars in the sky.

  1. But there is a lesson for us in the stars that shine overhead. Rabbi Levi Meier, a rabbi and psychotherapist in Los Angeles, points to the commentary of Rashi on Abraham’s stars. Rashi notes that God lifted Abraham “above” the stars, to view them from the heavens rather than from a vantage place on the earth. According to the Midrash, Abraham, who was still Avram at that time, had learned from his knowledge of astrology that Avram and Sarai would never have a son to call their own. God then tells the patriarch that what he knows from astrology is incorrect. It is true that Avram and Sarai will not have a child, but God will change their names and thus change their destiny. Rabbi Meier of Los Angeles stays with this metaphor. Abraham does not look up to the stars to find his destiny, rather, from his vantage point above the stars, he can see a destiny not ruled by the mechanics of the planets. Abraham discovers that his life depends on God alone, and not on any astrological sign.

  1. The lesson for us should be clear. Other people may look to astrology and say that they were born under one sign or another and that this sign controls their destiny. Other people may look to their horoscope to see what is in their future based on the movement of stars and planets. But the Jewish people do not rely on the stars; we are “above” the stars. There is only God who rules our destiny.

  1. The Talmud notes that a fortune teller was once giving predictions about the future. Two rabbis came and asked the fortune teller to predict their future. The fortune teller refused, saying that since they were Jews, the rule of the stars does not apply to their lives. In another place a famous fortune teller one morning, while walking with a rabbi, pointed to a group of workers going off to collect reeds from the river. He said, “That man who is walking in the lead will die before the sun sets today.” As the sun set, the workers left the river with their bundles of reeds for their warehouse to lay out the reeds to dry in the sun the next day. The man in the lead was still very much alive. The fortune teller was amazed and stopped the man in the street asking to look inside his bundle. The bundle was opened and inside a very poisonous snake was coiled around the reeds. A blow from the rabbi’s walking stick was the end of the snake but his friend the fortune teller could not understand how the man could pick up the reeds and bundle them without getting bitten by the snake and dying. The rabbi asked the man if anything unusual had happened that day. “No,” replied the worker, a bit shaken by the events, “The only thing that happened was that one of the other workers came to the river without a lunch because he had no money for food. So I shared a part of my lunch with him.” The rabbi turned to his friend the fortune teller and said, “It seems that an act of kindness has overruled the stars.”

  1. Here we are at the first Shabbat of the New Year; 2012. There are some people who think that this is going to be a very bad year. According to the Mayan Calendar, this is the year when the world will come to an end. ( I even know some people who think that Mitt Romney winning the Iowa caucuses is a sure sign that the world is coming to an end!) I can’t speak for the entire world but I do know that the Torah teaches us that we are not subject to fate or destiny. Neither nature nor nurture determines how our life will unfold. Each and every day, our destiny is molded by the decisions we make, to live a religious life of caring, kindness, concern and holiness or to live by our wits, putting ourselves at the center of the universe and doing only those actions that will serve our needs. Each and every day we have the power of repentance to not only turn our life around but to turn our destiny around as well.

  1. In Judaism, our fate is always in our own hands. We may not be able to prevent disaster and disappointments in our lives but we don’t have to let the tragedies change the kind of person we aspire to be. As the proverb says, we can’t change the direction of the wind but we can change the set of our sails. If we keep our goals in mind, to live a live of blessing to ourselves, our families and to our communities, we can sail in any weather and against all storms to arrive at the destination we desire. It is not our fate to be something less, nor is it beyond our grasp to reach for the stars. Through Torah and acts of kindness, we can create a good name for ourselves in this world.

  1. Rabbi Meier says “During the day, and at night, the choice is always yours. If you see yourself as existing under the stars, you might feel that you have to accept your predetermined fate. However, if you look down at the stars, you will find yourself empowered, as you create your own destiny.

May God bless us this year, with the strength, health and wisdom to fashion for ourselves a destiny worthy of being a descendant of Abraham, and may we live in joy, the lives we create for ourselves, as we say….


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