Blockages and Blindness

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

This summary is dedicated l'iluy nishmat Rabbi Yehudah Kelemer zt"l whose third yahrtzeit is erev Shabbat, 24 Tevet. His eyes and heart lit our path and energized us with the love of Torah, for kllal Yisroel, for Eretz Yisroel, and for all humankind.

Parshat Vayechi is unique among all the parshiot in the Torah in that it neither begins on a new line nor has a minimum space nine letters long between the end of the previous parshah and the beginning of this one. Rashi labels this a parshah setumah, a closed parshah, suggesting that once Yaakov passed away, the eyes and hearts of Bnei Yisroel were closed because of the suffering of the enslavement. Although the hard work of the subjugation didn't begin until after all the brothers had died, one could now begin to sense the onset of the enslavement.

Alternately, Rashi suggests that Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of time, the time of Moshiach, but Hashem closed his eyes to that prophecy, and he could not reveal it.

The Torah itself is sensitive to visual stimuli, and this sensitivity is reflected in viewing the Torah scroll, writes Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr zt”l. The most obvious example is the Oz Yashir, the Song of the Sea, the text appearing as a picture of open brickwork upon the parchment, stepping into open freedom. Here, because Bnei Yisroel is entering its era of being confined in slavery, the style of the text also appears closed. As Rabbi Wolbe zt”l so beautifully writes, Bnei Yisroel and the Torah are so intimately connected and identified with each other, that when the hearts and eyes of Bnei Yisroel are closed, the Torah itself reflects this condition, and closes.

Whenever we read any text, we must often look beyond the actual printed words for the true message, or for a second, deeper, hidden message being sent; we must "read between the lines." This idea is even more relevant in studying Torah texts, writes Rabbi Kluger in My Sole Desire. The black letters of the Torah are the revealed messages, while the white spaces, often creating letters of their own, must be studied more carefully to reveal their hidden messages. [We can get an idea from the famous optical illusion, lehavdil: Is it a beautiful young lady or an old hag? Both are in the picture. Depends on your perspective and view. CKS] Further, the white spaces, especially between sections, gives us time to pause, reflect, and internalize what the Torah teaches. Teachers themselves, writes Rabbi Kluger, must remember not to keep rushing forward with a lesson, but to give their students time to absorb the material.

The essence of galus is that we become so absorbed in survival or other materialistic concerns that we have no time to contemplate, to turn inward and reflect on our spiritual essence and on our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

To understand the meaning of "their eyes were closed," one must first understand the purpose of light, writes Rabbi Lopiansky in Golden Apples. Rabbi Lopiansky notes that light was the first thing Hashem created even though it was not an actual component of His other creations. While it is true that light lets us see all the objects, its purpose goes beyond mere discernment. Light lets us see what is down the road, physically, emotionally and spiritually. It lets us see beyond the immediate here and now, thereby giving us choices. It is what and how one sees that determines his actions, As such, light is the foundation of free choice.

But a person can misuse this perception, and think that his view is the only, correct view. This was the case during the era of the Judges, when each person did what was right in his own eyes, and therefore acted inappropriately. This mindset invites galus. It extinguishes the light and brings about the fearful darkness that descended on Avraham Avinu at the Covenant between the Halves, when Avraham was told of the dark and foreboding exiles his descendants would endure.

But it is through this darkness, this blindness, when we are forced to ask for help, that growth takes place, continues Rabbi Lopiansky. It is through the process of searching for the light, not in receiving a quick answer, that growth takes place. Therefore it would have been counterproductive for Yaakov to reveal when the end of days would arrive, for it would have stymied growth.

We associate galus with the destruction of the Beit Hamikdosh. Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv explains that it was in the Beit Hamikdosh that Hashem's love and hashgachah/providence were manifest and palpable. As the verse in Kings I states, talking about the Beit Hamikdosh, "My eyes and My heart will be there forever."

The tents of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were mini Sanctuaries. The cloud of Hashem's presence was always above it, and the light of the Shabbat candles never burnt out from one Shabbat to the next, and their dough was always blessed. With the death of Yaakov Avinu, Hashem's palpable presence that had descended with Him to Mitzrayim was diminished. Although the servitude of hard labor had not yet begun, The enslavement of the spirit began with the death of Yaakov.

In a very practical understanding of this Rashi, Rabbi Schlesinger explains that with the death of Yaakov Avinu, Bnei Yisroel lost their mentor and their guide, their eyes and their heart had no one to turn to. Later, the Sanhedrin would be referred to as the eyes of the nation, and the king as the heart. Yaakov Avinu had served as both, writes Rabbi Borenstein in Vzos LeYaakov. But the new leader emerges when Moshe goes out and sees their suffering, Rashi there uses similar imagery: "[Moshe] set his eyes and his heart to suffer with them." In Moshe, there would be a new leader who would lead them out of their enslavement.

While Bnei Yisroel seem quite comfortable in Mitzrayim, this comfort and success only lasted as long as Yaakov lived, says the Medrash Rabbah. As soon as Yaakov died, the situation changed dramatically, and the restrictions of the servitude were beginning to be applied.

In truth, as long as we are not in our own land, we are in exile, no matter how comfortable we feel and how kind our host nation is. Yaakov understood this, writes Rav Moshe zt"l, but Bnei Yisroel did not realize this until Yaakov's death, when they needed permission to transport him for burial in Meorat Hamachpelah. As Rabbi Yosef Salant points out, Yaakov, understanding these realities, demanded Yosef swear not to bury him in Egypt, but in the Cave where his father, mother, and grandparents were buried. In fact, Yosef seems to no longer have direct access to Pharaoh, as he requests Pharoah's house to get Pharoah's permission to bury his father in Canaan.

Presaging the negotiations for the actual exodus centuries later, we note that all Egypt went up with Yaakov Avinu's casket. While this is usually interpreted as a tremendous show of respect, there is also a silent, malevolent undercurrent. Bnei Yisroel left behind their children and their cattle, ensuring their return and paving the way for their full enslavement. And all the chariots and soldiers who accompanied the casket served double duty as guards who would force Bnei Yisroel to return.

The Ner Uziel tells us that after Yaakov Avinu's death, Bnei Yisroel severed their close relationship with Eretz Yisroel and with the past. They themselves closed their eyes and their hearts, preferring to set down roots in the "goldene medinah." Had we not been reminded that we did not belong, we would have assimilated and been no more.

As long as Yaakov was alive, he represented both the hard work of Torah and its special sweetness. Bnei Yisroel maintained their separateness, getting all they needed from Torah and from each other. When Yaakov died, Bnei Yisroel lost that sweetness. They began interacting with the Egyptians, seeking business with them and enjoying their company. They began considering their religion a burden rather than a beautiful privilege. In the future, writes Rabbi Tuvyah Weiss zt”l quoting the Chatam Sofer zt”l, keeping Torah and mitzvoth will again be a joy rather than a burden.

The Shvilei Pinchas brings our discussion to a whole new level through the use of gematria. The Torah tells us that Yaakov lived in Mitzrayim for seventeen years. Seventeen is the numerical equivalent of tov/good. The entire time Yaakov was in Mitzrayim, he considered it all good, knowing that through his faith, even that which appears harsh judgment, since it comes from Hakodosh Boruch Hu, has good hidden within. This faith transforms even judgment to rachamim, mercy. Hashem's four lettered name, denoting the attribute of mercy, is numerically equal to 26. However, there is also another way of computing gematria, "the small computation." This involves adding up just the numbers without the zeros that complete it. [20=2; 30=3, 200=2, etc.] Using this method, Hashem's four lettered name computes to 17, teaching us that even when we do not see it, the טוב/17/good is still hidden within.

One of our mantras from Tehillim, a precept Yaakov taught his progeny for all generations, was, הודו לה כי טוב כי לעולל חסדו/Give thanks to Hashem for He is good; His kindness endures forever. Even if we are unable to see the good at this moment, His kindness endures forever, and at some point we will recognize it.

The 26 of Hashem's Name of mercy, minus the 17 of tov, leaves us with 9, the minimum space between two parshiot of the Torah. When we do not see the goodness because of the harshness, of judgment, we need to contemplate the space between the parshiot. Although there is no open manifestation of the good at this moment, we must contemplate the white fire, and know that it will come. However, since this was before we received the light of Torah, we were plunged in darkness. We who have the Torah can already see the good, the rejuvenation of Yaakov even as he lived in Mitzrayim. As Rabbi Wolfson notes, Jews don't live in despair. They live. They build.

Rabbi Scheinerman [quoting the Admor from Ostravia] has a completely opposite take on the "closed" parsha. He suggests that Hashem specifically wanted to maintain the connection between the previous parsha and this one, that Bnei Yisroel's connection to Eretz Yisroel not be severed, even in galus. [How we see that connection of Jews the world over to our precious Motherland, even from afar, in today's traumatic and dark days. CKS]

The natural order is for things to return to their place of origin, and our place of origin is Eretz Yisroel, writes the Maharal. Therefore, writes Rabbi Sorotskin zt”l, whenever a Jew is asked where he's from, he must say he is from Eretz Yisroel. Albeit he has lived all his life in New York, Europe or Japan, his roots are in Eretz Yisroel.

May we merit our eyes and our hearts again being opened to the light and warmth of Eretz Yisroel at Peace.