The reading for this week, Va'yechi, is special in more than one way. First, of course, it is the ending of one of the books of the Torah, the last parashah in Genesis. When we finished it we all stood up and said "chazak, chazak ve-nitchazak" --" be strong, be strong, and let's all be strong." Next stop, Exodus.
But in addition, it is also one of relatively few poetic sections in the Torah. There are a few more--the "song of the sea", after the parting of the Red Sea, the blessings of Bile'am, the "Ha'azinu" song of Moses, the final blessing by Moses, and a few small fragments elsewhere, for instance, the blessings of Isaac to Jacob and Esau.
What we read here was the final blessing by Jacob to his sons, which closes the story of the partriarchs. In the bible, when a distinguished person is about to die, he has parting words for his successors: he may bless his descendants, or foretell their fate--or curse them, as with the firstborn, Reuben.
The haftarah appropriately also describes such parting words--much more vindictive ones, if you read them--by David the king. You might want to compare them to Joseph's words in the last chapter of this reading. Jacob had died and Joseph's brothers say to themselves: "Oh no, now our brother will get even with us." But unlike David, Joseph does not have vengeance on his mind. What had happened was God's will, he says, if I had not been sold down to Egypt, I would never have risen to power and been able to sustain many people.
Poetry in the scriptures is often problematic: it may use unusual words and constructions, and for that reason, is often hard to understand and translate. If you only read the translation, you cannot fully appreciate this point, because a translator is forced to produce a coherent text. So you read the clear grammatical English and do not realize that the original Hebrew is far from simple, and that the translation often includes a lot of guesswork.
Let me give an example, on page 184--verse 5, chapter 49:
But there is no "kinship" here. The second line in Hebrew would be more accurately rendered
There is a lot more to Jacob's blessing. Consider the animals: Judah is a lion, Benjamin a wolf, Naftali a deer, Dan a snake, Issachar a donkey. We know from the 2nd chapter of the book of Numbers that at least some tribes had flags, which set people wondering, what was shown on those flags.
In the middle ages, when heraldry became popular, they went even further to imagine a symbolic shield for each tribe. You have seen those symbols, even in this building--on the wall by the school--and most symbols used there come straight from this reading--a lion for Judah, a snake for Dan, and so on, and a ship for Zebulon, because verse 13 states
But back to the names. The name of my wife Audrey's late father was Louis--Louis Jackson. He was given the name Jackson on Ellis Island, to replace some Russian name which is now completely lost--Audrey has no idea what it was. The name "Louis" may also have come from Ellis Island, but in this case, she knew what it replaced--the name used to be Lev, which is the Russian equivalent of Leo, meaning lion.
When our second child and first son Oren was born, she wanted his middle name to commemorate her late father, and we settled on Lavi, which not only sounds close to Louis, but also means "Lion" in Hebrew--specifically, a young lion. It is one of 5 synonyms in biblical Hebrew meaning "Lion", this particular one still used in the feminine "Levi'ah", a she-lion. So he is Oren Lavi, a name he likes very much.
But that was not the end of the story. Years later she saw her mother's Ketubah, the wedding contract, and her father's name there was given not as Louis or Lev, but as Yehudah, his Hebrew name. Had we known, our son today might be named Oren Yehudah.
What had happened was very simple. In old Russia, when a Jewish boy was born, he was of course given first of all a good Jewish name--such as "Yehudah."
But the authorities also demanded that each child carry a generally accepted name, and Jacob's blessing offered some natural choices. If the kid was named Yehudah, he naturally became Yehudah Lev, because Judah was compared to the lion. So you have for instance Yehudah Lev Gordon, one of the leading writers and poets among 19th century Russian Jews.
If the kid was named Naftali, he became Naftali Hirsch, because Hirsch in German or Yiddish means "deer" ("hind" in the translation of verse 21 here). Naftali Hirsch Imber was another 19th century Russian writer and the composer of "Hatikvah."
And Benjamin became Benjamin Wolf, because verse 26 says (at least in translation)
There is much more, of course. Note, for instance, the order of the names: it starts with the order of birth of Leah's sons, then come the concubines' children, and last, as they were in order of birth, come Joseph and Benjamin. You might compare this order--and the blessings--to the ones given by Moses in chapter 33 of Deuteronomy.
All this is goes deep to the roots of our tradition and culture.
This season of the year [approaching January 1st] is a particularly good time to look back at these roots, and realize that they go a long way back, and lead to unexpected places. Because this is a time when other cultural traditions in our society are at their most vocal and most visible, and when some Jews, especially younger ones, feel isolated and standing apart. We have plenty of good traditions of our own.
Because of these traditions, I will not wish you today "Shanah Tovah," even though in a few days we graduate to a new calendar year--we already wished that to each other, a few months back. Instead, let me sign off here with a wish more appropriate to the occasion--
Shabbat Shalom. Shabbat Shalom, to you all.
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 4 July 2002