> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

Living for the Entire World

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's portion, Jacob is on his deathbed and tells his children: "Gather around, and I will tell you what will happen at the End of Days" (Genesis 49:1). However, this information is never disclosed! Instead, Jacob blesses each one of his sons, and no further mention is made of the prophetic vision he promised to reveal.

According to Rashi, the Divine Presence left Jacob as he was about to tell his sons what would happen at the End of Days. Since Jacob was unable to prophesy without Divine assistance, he blessed his children instead. But why would the Divine Presence depart from Jacob precisely at this time?

Rabbi Naftali of Rupshitz suggests that once Jacob looked into the future, he saw all the pain that the Jewish people would have to endure until the end of time, and this saddened him so much that the Divine Presence left him. The Talmud teaches (Shabbat 30b) that sadness prevents a person from being able to receive prophesy. Therefore, once Jacob was overwhelmed with sorrow for the Jewish people, he no longer had clarity about future events.

This teaches us a powerful lesson about what it means to feel the pain of others.

A story told about Rav Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev is instructive. Rav Levi Yitzhak once visited an ill person who was very worried about whether he would receive a place in the World to Come. Upon hearing the man's concern, Rav Levi Yitzhak called over some of his students to act as witnesses, whereupon he drew up a document transferring his own portion in the Next World to the ill man. His students signed the document, and a few moments later the man died.

The students were shocked by their rabbi's behavior, and they asked him why he had acted in such a manner. Rav Levi Yitzhak replied, "To make a Jew who is suffering feel calm and at ease, even for one moment, is worth more than the entire World to Come."

(It seems possible that the reward Rav Levi Yitzhak received for this great act of compassion far outweighed the reward that he signed over to the dying man!)

* * *


These examples show that holy people do not live for themselves; they live for others. We see this in the Torah when it states, "And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt" (Genesis 47:28). The Meshech Chochma explains that Jacob did not merely live in the land of Egypt for his own sake; his "life" was for everyone! His care for others, including the Egyptians, affected the entire world - since, at the time, the whole world depended on Egypt for their food supply. Thus, Jacob's complete lack of self-centeredness had a positive impact on the entire world.

We see this as well in the verse where Jacob tells Joseph, "I am giving you one shchem MORE THAN YOUR BROTHERS" (Genesis 48:22). What is the meaning of the word shchem? On a literal level, it means "portion." Rashi understands it to refer to the city of Shchem, which Jacob describes as conquering with his sword and his bow.

Onkelos, in his Aramaic translation, defines "my sword and my bow" as "my prayer and my requests."

According to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan), these prayers had an effect on all three worlds: the lower world (shafel) in which we live; the middle world (kochavim) of outer space and galaxies; and the highest world (malachim), which is the realm of the angels. The acronym of these three Hebrew words (SH-afel, K-ochavim, M-alachim) spells SHCHEM!

Thus we see again that Jacob did not live only for himself or his family. He did not pray only on his own behalf, or on behalf of the people and cities in his immediate surroundings. Jacob prayed for the acronym of Shchem - for everyone in all three worlds.

As we conclude the Book of Genesis, we should reflect on the lessons it teaches us. Over and over we see an emphasis on empathy for others - shifting the focus away from our individual, self-centered concerns in order to be as sensitive as possible to the needs of others. Our patriarchs and matriarchs exemplify this quality. It is a necessary foundation - a prerequisite that must be integrated into the Jewish national character before we can appreciate the redemption of the Book of Exodus.

May we integrate this lesson into our own lives and be blessed to develop unity, camaraderie, and compassion for each other, so that we merit the ultimate redemption, soon in our days.

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