Parashat Va-y'hi

Genesis 47:28–50:26

January 2, 2010 / 16 Tevet 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman, Rabbinic Fellow, Development Department, JTS

I am a person with an insatiable appetite for news; a serious information consumer who checks websites, Facebook, and Twitter, often hourly, for updates on what is happening in the US, Israel, around the world, and in my friends' and relatives' lives. While this circumstance may seem commonplace coming from someone of my generation, I actually find the situation challenging for just that reason. I live in a world of prose but yearn for a more poetic existence, and that has become especially difficult to find lately.

I have gotten some amusement from this December's year-end and decade-end summaries of the headlines, but only a minimum of enduring insight. Those rather banal lists reminded me, though, of my hunger for the drama of a rich text that draws me into language that requires and even defies parsing; a text that challenges me to question it and my own typical patterns of communication. These aesthetics constitute the core of this week's Torah portion. At the heart of Parashat Va-y'hi we find Jacob's deathbed speech, a testament in which he blesses or rebukes each of his sons. The poetry that composes the bulk of chapter 49 of Genesis relates both to earlier incidents in the family's life and to the brothers' future as the tribes of Israel. In order to explore what this Torah portion has to teach us, we ought to begin with a closer examination of how it conveys those ideas.

One scholar, Dr. Adele Berlin, has outlined the ways in which poetic passages like that of Jacob's Testament in Genesis 49 achieve "a type of elevated discourse." In an essay entitled "Reading Biblical Poetry" that she composed for The Jewish Study Bible, which she coedited, Dr. Berlin writes that

"more than just a set of formal features or structures, poetry is sound and vision compressed for intensity and expressed with potency. Biblical poetry struggles to probe and stretch the important cultural concepts and issues of ancient Israel in exquisitely distilled Hebrew. In that sense, it is the purest, most rarefied, expression of biblical thought."

Within the canon of the Hebrew Bible, generally known for its sparse language, this subgenre of poetic texts presents its ideas in an even more laconic and esoteric way that conceals as much as it reveals about its content.

Unfortunately, much of the beauty of this evocative yet elusive mode of expression is lost in translation. A few verses, though, demonstrate the ways in which the literary elements of terseness, imagery, and allusion in this chapter make it an outstanding example of what Dr. Berlin describes. The son/tribe of Gad receives mention in only a single verse here, Genesis 49:19, which states: GaD G'Dud yeGuDenu / v'hu yaGuD 'akev ("Gad shall be raided by raiders / but he shall raid at their heels"). The Hebrew transliteration portrays the alliteration that repeats throughout the verse and shows how Gad's name relates to the tribe's destiny to experience a cycle of violence and retribution. This verse holds a more subtle key to unlocking connections within this chapter and to earlier chapters in Genesis.

This idea has deeper resonance both within the chapter and throughout Genesis, as the term 'akev (heel) appears two verses before this in highly allusive form: "Dan shall be a serpent by the road, / A viper by the path, / That bites the horse's heels ('ikvei) / So that his rider is thrown backward" (Gen. 49:17). An astute audience reading this or hearing the text chanted would likely notice connections between the term's usage here and in at least two other prominent verses describing the significance of heels. The passage's narrator himself is described at birth in Genesis 25:26 as "holding on to the heel (ba-'akev) of Esau; so they named him Jacob (Ya-akov)." In regard to a time many generations earlier, Genesis 3:15 describes God's curse for the serpent in the Garden of Eden: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; they shall strike at your head, and you shall strike at their heel ('akev)."

While two of the greatest medieval biblical commentators, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, both mention the link between the heel and 'akev references in Genesis 3 and 49, neither expounds upon the implications at any length. Knowing that both Rashi and Ibn Ezra exercised brevity in their commentaries, we can focus on the mere fact that they highlight this connection and others that turn our attention to the "cultural concepts and issues" to which Dr. Berlin refers. The verses examined above raise questions about the origin and causes of conflict and violence, whether among humans or between humankind and nature.

We learn little from Genesis or other biblical texts to suggest that such questions pertained more to Dan and Gad than to the other brothers/tribes, and perhaps that is the point. Whether we imagine all the brothers gathered together to hear Jacob's deathbed speech or a different ancient audience listening to the statements about trouble at one's heels, the verse exclaimed between those utterances has a certain power: "I wait for Your deliverance, O LORD!" (Gen. 49:18).

I pray that we can rely upon but will not wait for God's deliverance from the controversies that seem more and more likely to become machlokot lo l'shem shamayim (disputes not for the sake of heaven). May we find redeeming values and greater peace through the texts we encounter each day, and may the pen continue to be mightier than the sword.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.