This Shabbat, we conclude the Book of Genesis with Parashat Va-y’chi. Whenever we finish reading a book, even a book of Torah, it is important to reflect on where we have been, what we have covered since the beginning of the book. Over the past twelve weeks, we have made our way through Genesis, beginning with Creation and the mythological stories that attempt to explain how the world as we know it came to be.
Then, we began the story of our people, with God’s call to Abram to leave his home and go to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1). In return, God promised “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will pronounce doom on those who curse you; through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2–3).
The rest of the Book of Genesis tells the story of Abraham (as he was renamed) and his family, the challenges that they faced, and their faithfulness despite adversity. We follow this family from generation to generation, as the covenant is passed first to Isaac and then to Jacob, each facing and overcoming their own challenges.
Finally, the story of this “first family of Judaism” is concluded in Va-y’chi, with the death first of Jacob and then of Joseph. Before he dies, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and then offers a blessing to each of his own sons. But while this narrative closes one chapter in the story of our people, at the same time, it begins another, looking forward to the next stage of the journey.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, in commenting on this portion, notes that Genesis, like the Tanach as a whole, “is a story without an ending which looks forward to an open future rather than reaching closure” (Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible, Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, New Milford, CT: Maggid Books and The Orthodox Union, 2009, p. 350). Although the loose ends of this particular part of the story are neatly tied up, we know we are not at the end of the story, but only at its beginning.
Indeed, throughout Genesis there has been a tension between the past and the future, between what was and what is yet to be. The covenant that God makes with Abraham serves to direct our attention toward the future. But, we also learn early on (Genesis 15:13) that this future will include being “strangers in a land not theirs” and being “enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years.”
Twice in Genesis the narrative takes us back to Haran, to the past, to the place that Abraham and his family left. First, Abraham’s servant seeks out a wife for Isaac there, and then Jacob flees there to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. Each time, however, they return to the Land of Israel, for Haran is the past to which we might return from time to time, but where we can never remain.
At the same time, Egypt—which will be our people’s future—draws Abram as a result of a famine; Isaac does not venture there only because he is warned not to do so by God. Then Joseph ends up in Egypt and ultimately his entire family settles there, setting the stage for the next act of the story. In fact, the Book of Genesis ends with the word Mitzrayim, “Egypt,” as if to point us ahead to the Book of Exodus, which we will begin reading next Shabbat.
This tension between looking backward and ahead will continue throughout the Torah. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, hopeful to reach the Promised Land, they occasionally pine for the good old days in Egypt as they face hardship along the way. But though going back to Egypt might appear attractive in theory, it is never a real possibility. The journey must always move forward, with bumps along the way and a few detours, but always focused on the future.
As Rabbi Sacks points out, Judaism views time markedly differently from other cultures. We don’t see time as cyclical, characterized by endless repetition. (We do speak of a Torah reading cycle, as we go through the same stories from year to year, but assuming that we learn something each time through it is more a spiral than a circle.) We also do not see time—as it was viewed by many during the Enlightenment—as marked by inevitable progress.
Rather, Rabbi Sacks writes, Judaism believes in “covenantal time, the story of the human journey in response to the divine call, with all its backslidings and false turns, its regressions and failures, yet never doomed to tragic fate, always with the possibility of repentance and return, always sustained by the vision with which the story began, of the Promised Land…” (p. 353).
As we conclude reading the Book of Genesis, we reflect on the challenges faced by the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs:
- the barrenness of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, which called into question whether the covenant would be passed to the next generation
- the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Esau threatening to kill Jacob, and the brothers wanting to kill Joseph—any of which would have likely ended the covenantal fulfillment
- marital conflicts (Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar; Jacob, Rachel, and Leah), which also could have undermined God’s promise
Through it all, the promise of the covenant served to inspire and guide, assuring that our history would continue. As the Book of Genesis ends, we do not know what the future will hold. Jacob and Joseph have died. The rest of the people are residing in a strange land. Who knows what their fate will be, now that Joseph—the only Egyptian establishment “insider” among them—is gone?
Despite this seemingly pessimistic note on which Genesis ends, there is one clue to remind us to be hopeful. This portion is named Va-y’chi, “And [Jacob] lived.” Even when we reflect on his death, we are drawn to reflect on his life. Even as Genesis ends with death, we remember the vitality of the characters we have encountered, inspired by their lives. While one chapter of our people’s story ends, the covenant assures us that it is not the end of the story, but only the beginning.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden is the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington. Rabbi Kadden and his wife, Barbara Binder Kadden, RJE, have written extensively in the area of Jewish education, including co-authoring three books: Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values and Activities; Teaching Tefilah: Insights and Activities on Prayer; and Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Traditions and Activities.Rabbi Kadden blogs at: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/100gatestojewishlearning.