Parshat Vayechi – פרשת ויחי

THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH

Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom

evanhoffman@gmail.com

Parshat Vayechi – פרשת ויחי

December 30, 2017 – יב טבת תשעח

 

Praying for Deliverance

 

On his deathbed, Jacob offered a final testament in the form of poetic predictions concerning the destinies of the twelve tribes of Israel.  After commenting on the fate of Dan, Jacob exclaimed לישועתך קויתי יי “Your deliverance I await, O Lord (Genesis 49:18).”  Jacob’s outburst seems ill-fitting in context; it is not a poetic description of Israel’s future, but rather a petitionary prayer reflecting pious hopes.  Jacob’s words are comparable to the Psalmist’s supplication: “Guide me in Your true way and teach me, for you are God my Deliverer; it is You I look to at all times (Psalms 25:5).”

 

Some scholars suggest that Jacob purposefully interrupted his rather lengthy final testament midstream to offer a terse call for God’s help because he feared that he might suddenly die before properly concluding his remarks to his sons.  Cries for deliverance at moments of acute mortal danger are consistent with the prophet’s words, “O Lord be gracious to us.  It is to You we have looked.  Be our deliverance in time of stress (Isaiah 33:2).”  John Gill (18th century English Bible scholar) suggested that Jacob was physically exhausted.  He paused to catch his breath and uttered a short prayer beseeching God for the strength to finish conferring blessings on his children.  That Jacob was terminally ill with precious few moments remaining is clear from the fact that he died immediately after commanding his sons to bury him at Machpelah (Genesis 49:33).  Isaac, too, worried about the uncertain timing of death and the possibility of expiring before offering to his descendants his final words of blessing and prognostication (27:2).

 

The above interpretation, however, is undermined by evidence from the Masorah.  If that view were correct, Genesis 49:18 would stand alone with paragraph breaks immediately preceding and following the verse.  In fact, closed paragraph breaks appear before 49:16 and after 49:18, clearly indicating that the awaited Divine deliverance somehow relates to the tribe of Dan.

 

Concerning Dan, Jacob said: “Dan shall govern his people, as one of the tribes of Israel.  Dan shall be a serpent by the road, a viper by the path, that bites the horse’s heels so the rider is thrown backward (49:16-17).”  In rabbinic literature and among the medieval commentators, there was a tendency to interpret Genesis 49:16-17 as referring specifically to Samson, an Israelite hero descended from the tribe of Dan who lived during the era of the Judges.  Samson was a man of unbelievable physical strength.  He exacted vengeance against the Philistines by using irregular guerilla tactics.  He did not command a formal army of Israelite soldiers.  Abarbanel explained that Jacob foresaw the “deliverance” wrought by Samson and was repulsed by it.  Instead of pointless acts of terrorism against the foreign oppressors, Jacob sought true deliverance wrought by God at the hand of a respectable Israelite military fighting its enemies face to face in combat.  Ramban explained that Samson was the last of the Judges, each of whom brought Israel only temporary relief from its external foes.  Jacob foresaw the failure of Samson and his Judge-predecessors; he prayed for real, everlasting deliverance effected by God Himself.  Pseudo-Jonathan identified Gideon and Samson as providers of temporary respite. Jacob yearned for the full deliverance yet to be brought by a Davidic Messiah.

 

According to the Midrash, Jacob initially believed that Samson was the Messiah.  After seeing, through prophetic vision, that Samson was destined to die in enemy custody, Jacob prayed for direct Divine deliverance (Genesis Rabbah 98:18).  Alternatively, upon seeing a vision of Samson fighting like a snake, Jacob rejected Samson’s candidacy as a deliverer of Israel.  Instead, Jacob predicted that the tribe of Gad would produce the messianic herald, Elijah the Prophet (99:12).

 

Rashi and Ralbag interpreted Genesis 49:18 in light of particular events in Samson’s life.  Rashi associated Jacob’s plea for Divine deliverance with Samson’s final prayer.  After the Philistines gouged out Samson’s eyes, he petitioned God for one last burst of strength with which he would deliver a devastatingly lethal blow to the enemy.  “O Lord God!  Please remember me and give me strength just this once (Judges 16:28).”  Samson mustered enough strength to topple the pillars of the Philistine temple, killing everyone inside, himself included.  Ralbag noted that Samson’s downfall was due to his infatuation with foreign women.  His Philistine paramour, Delilah, betrayed him (16:18).  Jacob foresaw the difficulties that Samson’s overactive libido would cause him, and so he prayed that Samson would benefit from Providential protection.  Ralbag suggests that Samson’s observance of elements of the Nazirite law, starting in utero, was intended to secure God’s help in overcoming his sinful inclination.

 

Rashbam rejected the notion that Genesis 49:16-18 refers to Samson.  He insisted that Jacob’s predictions concerned the entirety of the tribe, not just its most famous member.  The tribe of Dan was tasked with being the rearguard of the Israelite camp as it journeyed through the wilderness (Numbers 10:25).  In that capacity, the Danites often had to fend off enemies and marauders trying to attack Israelite weak points (see Deuteronomy 25:18).  Jacob offered a special prayer for their deliverance in light of their grave responsibilities and exposure to danger.  Abarbanel added the further point that because the Danites lagged a considerable distance behind the rest of the Israelite camp, the other tribes were unavailable to come to the Danites’ assistance in moments of crisis.  They could rely only on God’s help, for which Jacob prayed.

 

Some modern scholars understand “Your deliverance I await, O Lord” in light of the tribe of Dan’s inability, in the post-conquest era, to establish for itself a territorial base of settlement (Joshua 19:47).  Dan was supposed to settle in the region north of Judah, south of Ephraim, and west of Benjamin (what is today the southern part of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and extending southeast toward the Jerusalem corridor).  The Danites eventually despaired of dislodging the indigenous inhabitants from their assigned territory and instead found an alternative homestead in northern Eretz Yisrael.  Dan was numerically quite small.  It comprised only one clan (Numbers 26:42).  The tribe also had a recurring intermarriage problem, commingling with non-Israelite neighbors.  For these reasons, the tribe of Dan was so terribly reduced in stature that some people might not have regarded it as a tribe at all.  To strengthen the resolve of the Danites and to reinforce their status as a legitimate tribe in Israel, Scripture reports Jacob’s saying “Dan, his folk will judge as one of Israel’s tribes” (according to Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 49:16).  The prayer for God’s deliverance in Genesis 49:18 is the plaintive cry of a marginal, wandering group of Israelites who cannot rely on other tribes and which has no hope for salvation save the Almighty Himself.

 

It is not surprising that Genesis 49:18 has engendered a wide range of interpretations.  The basic purpose of religion is to provide human beings with hope that a Higher Power can provide salvation or deliverance when all other potential sources of succor do not.  Accordingly, לישועתך קויתי יי is an appropriate prayer for an infinite set of circumstances.  Genesis 49:18 and its Aramaic translation are found in the Siddur, in the series of optional liturgical pieces that follow the statutory Shacharit service.  It is recited immediately after the Maimonidean creed, implying the complete faith with which we await God’s deliverance.  Eminently desirable would be that our people today recited Jacob’s words with sincerity.