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D’Var Torah Vayechi

Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

Missing Matriarchs
Bex Stern-Rosenblatt

Genesis ends with a cliffhanger. So much is left unresolved. The plot of most of Genesis is driven by the two promises which God gave to Abraham – the promise of progeny and the promise of land. By the end of Genesis, we have achieved progeny. After three generations of siblings quarreling, the Joseph story moves beyond sibling conflict. All the sons of Jacob will inherit; they all become the bearers of blessing. But we are in the wrong land. We have left Israel for Egypt and we remember what God told Abraham at the covenant between the parts – we know we are in for a time of slavery. This unresolved promise is the driving force for the rest of the Torah. Having left Canaan, we spend the next four books trying to return.

Tradition has it that the redemption from Egypt happened thanks to the actions of the Israelite women. We read in the Talmud, B. Sotah 11b, “In reward for the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.” The promise of land is fulfilled because the women understand the plot. Likewise, it is the women who drove the plot in Genesis. The matriarchs understood the importance of the promise of progeny. From Sarah issues the line of Israelites, while Abraham is the father of many nations.  Rebecca converses with God about her pregnancy and ensures that the correct son receives her husband’s blessing. Rachel and Leah control their husband’s procreation, breeding him like a sheep. Similarly, most of the action in Genesis is driven by the need to procure correct marriages. Guarding the lineage is passed down from one matriarch to the next, with the patriarchs as the delivery men.

But by the time we get to our parashah, we have lost the women. In fact, they disappear near the beginning of the Joseph story, after the stories of Tamar and the wife of Potiphar. It does not seem to matter whom the sons of Israel marry. No one is paying attention to the production of progeny any more. For the first time, there is no one to drive the story towards the fulfillment of God’s two promises and it shows. The story stagnates until the women pick up the narrative again in Exodus.

Our parashah does contain remnants of the matriarchs. Jacob, shortly after asking Joseph to bury him in Israel, pauses to explain what happened to Joseph’s mother. We read, “And I, when I was coming from Padan Aram, Rachel died on me, in the land of Canaan, still a short distance from Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath.” Soon after, Jacob instructs all of his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, which he identifies as the place where, “Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebecca were buried; and there I buried Leah.” At first glance, the women appear in memory. They are the dead. But even in death they are still working to achieve God’s promises. They are the ones pulling Jacob and Joseph’s bodies back into the land of Canaan. More radically, it is the need for a place in which to bury their bodies which leads to the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise of land. The Israelites’ first stake in Israel was the burial plot that Abraham bought for Sarah. The matriarchs possessed the land of Israel long before the Israelites returned to it.

Why do the women disappear at the end of Genesis? Do we need to lose the plot in order to find it again? One hint can be found in the way Joseph is characterized in Jacob’s blessing to him. We read, “From the God of your fathers, may He aid you, Shaddai, may He bless you— blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of breasts and womb.” Jacob passes to Joseph all the good of Genesis. He starts with the creation story, the heavens and the deep, and progresses to the women, the drivers of action. We find these same ideas at the end of the Torah, in Parashat Haazinu. The heavens and the earth are called to listen to all that God has done for Israel, including acting as mother to them. So Jacob invites Joseph to be the missing matriarch, to act as the driver of the plot and the nurturer of the emerging Israelites.


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