Parashat Va-y’hi

Friday, January 1, 2021/17 Tevet, 5781

Parashat Va-y’hi Genesis 47:28–50:26

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year and almost Shabbat Shalom. This Shabbat we read one of my favorite Torah portions, Parashat Va-y’hi. In this portion, Jacob blesses his children and grandchildren, as he lie on his death bed. In blessing, he recounts his observations and foreshadows who he believes each of them will be, often in a very frank and bluntly honest manner.

While the blessings and conversations are very important to our understandings of each of the tribes to come, it is actually a Midrash about this portion that makes me love it so much. That Midrash surrounds Jacob’s final breaths and the Shema. Often, when we are searching for deeper meaning in our prayers and traditions, we must look at them in a different way. We traditionally look at the Shema as OUR personal statements about the Oneness of God. That said, this Midrash creates a deeper meaning of the Shema at the end of our lives. As Jacob is dying in Egypt, he is concerned about his children returning to the land promised to him and his ancestors. He asks them to promise to return, and in their answer to him, they say, “Shema Yisrael (Listen Israel, Jacob’s other name), Adonai is our God (your God is OUR God), Adonai echad (and we understand that there is only One, even though we are surrounded by all of these Egyptian gods).” Now, what happens next is what makes this Midrash so beautiful.

Have you ever wondered why we traditionally speak the second line of the Shema in a whisper? This is one of the great explanations. As Jacob finally feels assured that his monotheistic legacy is safe with his children, he is able to calmly transition into eternity, as he whispers on his final breath, “Baruch Shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed (God’s name will be blessed forever and ever),” with which he expires.

It is a gift when we can be the guarantors that our parents and grandparents imagined. During this past year, many of us have reconnected in a significant way with our Judaism and, dare I say, with God. As we welcome 2021, may we dedicate our lives to assuring that these renewed connections are strengthened for us and our children, and when our time comes, may we, like Jacob, be able to bless our families and slip away into eternity, content that we have left a legacy that celebrates our traditions, our people, and our God.

Shabbat Shalom,
Cantor Ilan Davidson