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Vay’chi 5784

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

I want you to picture the inside of a Torah scroll, the columns with Hebrew text. One question I am asked often is, “how do you find the text you’re looking for when you open up the scroll?”

It’s not always easy, but some consistencies in the scrolls help. To begin with, all Torah portions begin either on a new line or on the same line as where the previous portion ended, but after a substantial separation – at least nine “letter spaces” – from the conclusion of the previous portion. Because of this kind of spacing, the start of a Torah portion is referred to as “open.” This week’s portion, Vay’chi, is unique, however; it begins immediately following the preceding portion, on the same line, with no letter spaces. Thus, Vay’chi is called the only “closed” portion in the Torah.

“Open” and “closed” can describe a number of conditions – our minds, Hebrew word endings (open ends with a vowel sound while closed ends with a letter sound), and doors and windows. In 1998, Israelit poet Yehuda Amichai, published Open Closed Open – Patu-ach Sagur Patu-ach. The title poem goes like this:

Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.

We could probably spend the rest of this evening parsing the possible meanings of Amichai’s words. No matter what he meant, though, when I hear the words “open” and “closed,” I don’t think of doors and windows, poetry, minds, or Hebrew word endings. I think of one blessing that is a part of our morning liturgy, called Asher Yatzar. While Mishkan T’filah, our siddur, translates it faithfully, the actual words of the prayer mean: 

“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who hast formed us in wisdom, and created in us openings and hollows. It is well known before Your glorious throne that if but one of these were opened, or if one of those be closed, it would be impossible to exist and stand in Your presence.”

A traditional Jew says these words first thing in the morning after using the toilet, and throughout the day after other similar visits. Growing up, my Conservadox rabbi also demanded that we recite these words. I remember sitting in Hebrew class. A hand would rise. Rabbi Zadonowitz would look hopeful – someone had a question or comment. “Rabbi,” my classmate would say, “can I go to the bathroom?” “Yes,” he’d reply in a somewhat dejected voice, “and don’t forget to say the bathroom blessing!”

To a kid, this seemed both humorous and daunting. I could remember borei p’ri hagafen and hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz. But this one was much longer. And it was about my body and my body’s orifices and whether or not they worked. OMG, how embarrassing. Those times that I had asked to be excused to use the bathroom I of course promised Rabbi Zadonowitz that I would say the words before returning to class, but I never did.

As an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for this blessing. In order to survive physically, many parts us need to be open – our nose and airways to breathe, our mouth to receive nourishment, other orifices to provide exits for waste. Other parts need to be closed – our blood must clot after a cut or incision so that we can heal. Most of the time, these openings and closings occur naturally, instinctively, and for that we are grateful. Until they are obstructed, we take them for granted, often forgetting that our very lives depend on them. Perhaps this is why Jewish tradition provides a blessing that refers to this very dependence.

For anyone who suffers from a chronic or recurring or life-threatening ill­ness, however, waking each day brings with it a profound awareness of what our bodies can – and cannot – do. We don’t need to be reminded through our morning liturgy, and thus the prayer may serve a different purpose: To give us the opportunity to express gratitude for what our bodies can do, even when some open orifices are closed, and some closed ones are open.

Perhaps the “closed” nature of the placement of this week’s Torah portion foreshadows what will occur – Jacob the patriarch will become ill, meet and adopt his grandsons through Joseph, and then call together his 12 sons to offer them words about their futures. We read, “Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So, he took his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

When Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has some to see you,’ [he] summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”[1]

The Rabbis observed that Jacob is the first person in the Torah to be described as having some sort of sickness. “In a Midrash they write: “From the day that heaven and earth were created, people did not become sick. A person might have been walking in the market, he would sneeze and his soul would leave his body through his nostrils. Jacob requested mercy, ‘Master of the Universe, do not take my soul until I have instructed my children.’ God acceded to the request.... That is why we wish a person “life” or “blessings” when he or she sneezes.”[2]

Another Midrash asks what was different about Jacob that he would be the first person to become ill before his death? It answers that each of our forefathers asked for something to be done to him before he died: Abraham was concerned about his appearance. He told God that if fathers and sons looked alike (as they apparently did then), no one could tell them apart. He asked that God give the elder generations signs of aging. God agreed.

Isaac was concerned that if there was no pain in the world, there would be little suffering in this world, and thus an incredible burden would be placed upon a sinner at the time of his death. Pain in this world could partially alleviate the pain in the World to Come and thus ease one’s entrance to Paradise. God agreed and made Isaac blind.

Jacob’s concern was that if, in his dying hour, a person was to become ill, it would serve as a warning for him to use his remaining time to prepare his children. God agreed, and Jacob was the first person to have a terminal illness. He bestowed blessings and give his sons their final instructions for living in Egypt.[3]

[1]Genesis 48:1

[2]Pirkei d’Rebe Eliezer, approximately 9th-10th centuries

[3]Genesis Rabbah, approximately 5th century

Thu, February 29 2024 20 Adar I 5784