Va-yehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) and Haftarah (1 Kings 2:1-12): The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary shows teens in their own language how Torah addresses the issues in their world. The conversational tone is inviting and dignified, concise and substantial, direct and informative. Each pamphlet includes a general introduction, two model divrei Torah on the weekly Torah portion, and one model davar Torah on the weekly Haftarah portion. Jewish learning—for young people and adults—will never be the same. The complete set of weekly portions is available in Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin’s book The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary (JPS, 2017).
About the Author
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. He is the author of Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book published in the United States, and The Gods Are Broken: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (JPS, 2013).
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Va-yehi: Genesis 47:28–50:26
As we come to the end of the book of Genesis, it is truly a time of transition. Two people die: Jacob, and then his beloved son Joseph. Joseph's brothers worry that, with their father dead, all the old family fights will start up again. But Joseph makes them feel better about the way that everything worked out.
As Genesis ends, the children of Jacob are living, happily and comfortably, in the land of Goshen in Egypt. But, as we shall see, "happily" does not mean "happily ever after."
Jacob, on his deathbed, blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and then he blesses each of his sons. Each son's blessing refers not only to his character and personality, but also to the destiny of the tribe that will descend from him. When Jacob finishes blessing his sons, he dies. (48:1–49:33)
Joseph and his brothers take their father, Jacob, back to Canaan for burial, and then they return to Egypt. (50:1–14)
Joseph's brothers are afraid that Joseph will now hate them for what they did to him when he was young. Joseph reassures them, however, and tells them that what has happened was all been part of God's plan for him and his family. (50:15–21)
As Joseph is about to die, he makes his brothers swear that, when they finally leave Egypt, his bones will be buried in the Land of Israel. (50:22–26)
The Big Ideas
Jacob's blessings of his sons predict the future. Jacob's words to them refer to their personalities, but, even more so, to the future of the tribes that will descend from them. Jacob's blessings even foresee the future of the territories in the Land of Israel that the tribes will inhabit. A traditional explanation is that God gave Jacob the gift of prophecy. Modern scholars would say that the blessings — and in a few cases, curses — reflect the realities of Israelite tribal history.
Judaism accepts the reality of bodily death. When Jacob dies, the Egyptians embalm his body, as they do also with Joseph's body. This is the well-known practice of mummification. The ancient Egyptians believed that the body needed to be preserved in order to be reunited with the soul in the afterlife. By contrast, Judaism embraces the finality of the body's death, and does not believe that it needs to be artificially preserved.
The Diaspora (places where Jews live outside of Israel) is an historical reality for Jews. When Jacob's sons carry their father's body back to the Land of Israel for burial, they could have stayed there. But, instead, they return to Egypt. They had gotten very comfortable there, and they might even have thought of themselves as Egyptians. In the same way, American Jews tend to think of themselves as Americans; Canadian Jews, as Canadians, etc.
Forgiveness is a central Jewish value. Joseph refuses to hold a grudge against his brothers. In this way, he demonstrates the Jewish attitude toward grudges — it's best not to carry them.
The Land of Israel is always precious to the Jew — even in death. Despite the fact that he has lived his entire adult life in Egypt, Joseph is, at heart, a Jew. That is why he wants to be buried in the Land of Israel — which will ultimately happen when the Israelites enter the land. Joseph's deathbed wish emphasizes the Jewish linkage to the Land of Israel.
Don't Hold a Grudge!
This is going to happen to you.
No matter how popular you are, not everyone in school is going to be your friend. Or even like you. Some will actually dislike you; some might even be mean to you. You might know this already.
You'll go to your thirtieth high school reunion, and maybe you'll run into the people who didn't like you back then. They might come up to you, and hug you, and say, "Wow! It is so great to see you after all these years! You look wonderful! What are you doing now?"
You may be tempted to remind them of all that they did to you, way back then. You might want to accuse them of being hypocrites and phonies. But you won't. You will remember the story of Joseph, and how he says to his brothers that he basically forgives them for what they had done to him. That's because Joseph will not carry a grudge.
Maybe those who mistreated you actually want you to be honest with them (after all, it might help them feel better).
Similarly, Joseph's brothers worry aloud: "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?" (50:15).
The sentence starts with the word lu, which has several different meanings. The commentator Rashi says: "Lu can mean 'please' and 'if only'" (Rashi on Gen. 50:15). Rashi is saying that Joseph's brothers are still afraid and insecure, and they want Joseph to take seriously what they had done to him. They want Joseph to hold them responsible for what they did, and not simply sweep it under the rug.
But Joseph doesn't hate them, or bear a grudge. This is the great life lesson of Joseph. Joseph sees his life as a life with cosmic consequences. Stuff happened to him for a reason. He is sure what the reason is: "God sent me here to save life. Your hands did not sell me into Egypt; God did." Imagine having an attitude like that!
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner thinks that grudges are really like a slow-acting poison. "In very small doses, I will poison myself for the rest of my life. I will carry around the injury you caused me. I will watch it and guard it. But I will never tell you."
We've come to the end of Genesis. Cain killed his brother, Abel. Isaac and Ishmael reconciled, but never speak to each other. Jacob and Esau reconciled, and they do speak to each other. Joseph and his brothers reconciled, and speak to each other — and, then, Joseph invited them to live with him. Forgiveness is possible. Healing is possible. Family unity is possible.
The First Time Anyone Said the Shema
Some people have easy lives, or so we think. Not Jacob.
Jacob was lying on his deathbed. In those final moments, he went over his life. Born as a twin, he struggled in the womb with his brother, Esau. He cheated Esau out of his birthright. He stole his brother's blessing. When his brother sought to kill him, he escaped, stopping for the night at Beth El, where he dreamed of a ladder of angels. He wound up with Leah instead of Rachel, then he married Rachel too. He had a wrestling match with a mysterious stranger that left him with a permanent injury and a new name — Israel, the one who struggles with God.
His daughter, Dinah, was raped. His sons reacted violently. They then sold his son Joseph into slavery in Egypt. For many years, Jacob was bereaved. He thought that his son Joseph was dead. And then, when he was already an old man, he learned that Joseph was still alive. He made the long trip down to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. No wonder that when he met Pharaoh he would say his days had been long and hard.
At the end of his life, Jacob was gripped with fear. Perhaps this covenant that exists between him and God, this covenant that is still in its infancy, this covenant that he has sought so hard to fulfill, in his way — perhaps this covenant will die with him.
A midrash says: "When Jacob was dying, he called his twelve sons and said to them: 'Do you have faith in God?' And they said: 'Hear, O Israel [for that was Jacob's other name] the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.' And Jacob died with these words on his lips: 'Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.'" It's a lovely tale about the origin of the Shema, but, even more, about who the Jews are — a people that has faith in God
Jacob is like any other Jewish parent. He has worries, dreams, and hopes. He wants to pass his values and his faith to his children and his grandchildren. He wants to perpetuate his people and what is most important to him. He knows he will die, but he wants to live on, like his ancestors before him, in the generations that will come.
Continuing the Jewish people is a major responsibility. But how can you do that, especially as a kid? Steven M. Cohen, one of today's wisest Jewish sociologists, states: "Having Jewish friends in childhood (and later in life) is a good way to predict one's future Jewish identity." The best way to start building a Jewish identity and creating the Jewish future is to create a network of Jewish friends: through religious school, youth group, Jewish summer camp, Israel trips — even social media.
The future of the Jewish people starts with you. And it starts today.
What would you want your parents to say to you when they bless you?
Have you ever held a grudge? What examples in world history and Jewish history of grudges can you think of?
Are the Jews still holding a grudge against the German people for the Holocaust?
Do you agree that Joseph's brothers wanted to be taken seriously, and perhaps not be forgiven so quickly?
What do you think was going through the minds of Jacob's sons when he was dying?
What do you think your parents' Jewish hopes for you are?
In what way have you inherited Judaism from your own parents and grandparents?
Do you agree that having Jewish friends is essential to creating a Jewish identity? What other things are important?CHAPTER 2
Va-yehi: 1 Kings 2:1–12
King David is dying, and he is conveying his final wishes to his son Solomon, who will succeed him as king. There is a clear link to the Torah portion, in which the Patriarch Jacob is dying, and he blesses each of his sons, often foretelling their future and the future of the tribes that will descend from them. We really can't say that David "blesses" Solomon; more accurately, he gives him a small laundry list of things that he wants his son to do after he dies — and they aren't exactly the most pleasant things.
Even though this is not King David's finest hour, let's remember that he ruled for forty years, and was a leader of great accomplishment. He unified the tribes and made Jerusalem the capital. He brought the ark to Jerusalem and laid the foundation for the great Temple that his son would build. David secured the borders of Israel. According to tradition the poet-king even authored many of the beautiful Psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Last but not least, he founded a dynasty, the House of David, that would rule for generations.
But as the king lies dying, the biblical text does not refer to him as "King David," but merely as "David," without his title and without his crown. This teaches us that death comes to everyone, even and especially kings, and that in the final hour it doesn't matter what title you had. Death makes everyone equal.
Manning Up, David Style
There's an odd expression that men sometimes use with other men: "Man up." It's a way of saying: "Hey, do what you have to do, and, while you're at it, show some courage."
That is precisely what King David is saying in this haftarah. He counsels Solomon to be strong and "to be a man," and to follow God's commandments and to pay attention to God's laws.
The great king made his share of mistakes, however. None was greater than his affair with Bathsheba and the cover-up he ordered. And just before he dies there is that "hit list"; David then goes through a list of his enemies and friends, and he tells Solomon what the fate of each one should be.
Did David really want the people who may have insulted or opposed him killed? Was he out for revenge, pure and simple? The medieval commentator Isaac Abravanel says: "David wanted Solomon to know how Joab and Shimei had acted against him so that his son would not appoint them to high office." Perhaps David is urging his son to look carefully at a person's character. Or maybe he uses such strong language to teach Solomon about the value of loyalty: to reward those who have been loyal, and to keep an eye on those who have been disloyal.
Like many leaders whose accomplishments are real, David is far from perfect. Shimon Peres, the Israeli statesman, once said: "Not everything King David did on land [fighting battles] or on roofs [spying on Bathsheba bathing, and then sending her husband to die in battle] appears to me to be Judaism!"
But, in fact, one could argue that all of what King David did, the good and the bad, is part of Jewish history even if not the highest ideals of Judaism. David is a human being, who struggles with his passions and his sins. David did own up to at least some of his biggest mistakes. On a smaller scale than the king, we all do what David did. We sometimes let our passions get the best of us; we are vengeful or petty. Yet we love, dream, and do plenty of good. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes: "David is great because of his complexity, not in spite of it. We see ourselves in this man, and we see this man in ourselves."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Va-yehi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) and Haftarah (1 Kings 2:1-12): The JPS B'nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary"
Copyright © 2018 Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
General Introduction Va-yehi: Torah Commentary Va-yehi: Haftarah Commentary