Posted on March 23, 2011
by Judah Kerbel, 2009 USY International Religion/Education VP, 5769
January 10, 2009/14 Tevet, 5769
This week, we read Parashat Vayechi – the last of the Book of Genesis. Perhaps the name vayechi – and he lived – is ironic, for this parasha focuses on the last moments of Jacob’s life, and we will also see Joseph move on towards the end of the parasha. In this parasha, Jacob falls ill and summons his children to bless them. He forces Joseph to swear that he will not be buried in Egypt, but rather in the Cave of Machpelah, where his wife Leah, his parents, and his grandparents rest. Jacob is embalmed when he dies, and Joseph carries his remains back to Canaan. After Jacob dies, the brothers worry that Joseph will kill them, wary that he holds a grudge against them for their evildoings; yet Joseph assures his brothers that it all happened for a reason and that he does not bear a grudge against them.
The words hamalach ha-go’el oti mikol ra, the words to the popular Abie Rotenberg melody that we love to sing on Shabbat afternoons, appear in this parasha as Jacob blesses Joseph. Let’s take a look at what we are singing. The text reads:
Hamalach ha-go’el oti mikol ra yevareich et ha-ne’arim; v’yikarei bahem sh’mi, v’sheim avotai, Avraham v’Yitzchak, v’yigdu la-rov b’kerev ha-aretz. (Breishit 48:16) The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless the lads. In them may my name by recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth. (Etz Hayim Chumash, p. 297)
This is a blessing from Jacob in hopes of a bright future for the Jewish people. When God appeared to Jacob at Beit El further back, Jacob vowed to serve God as long as God protects him wherever he goes. Indeed, Jacob endured many hard times between his uncle Lavan constantly deceiving him, running a querulous family, and practically losing his favorite son; yet God was there to help Jacob. Jacob hopes for the best for his descendents, that God will be with them in all their journeys and to guide them.
A kushya (difficulty) on this blessing: what does it mean for the lads to be recalled in his and Isaac and Abraham’s names? Shneur Zalman, as quoted in the Etz Hayim chumash, explains: “May God bless them as long as they call themselves by traditional, biblical names. The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that sustained us” (p. 297). Three things prevented Jews from assimilating in Egypt: preserving their dress, language, and names. What Shneur Zalman is emphasizing is that the way in which we call ourselves reflects the way we approach our connection to Judaism; by giving our descendents Jewish names, we assert the prominence of Jewish identity in our everyday lives. If we do not identify as Jews, how can we serve God? Sforno, an Italian scholar, comments that “Abraham and Isaac … but not Terach or Nachor, because righteous men are not called by their fathers’ names when these are wicked, nor vice versa … hence his blessing was a prayer that they might be prepared to serve the Almighty so that they will be worth to be called after Abraham and Isaac …” (Art Scroll translation). Names serve as a symbol to the Jewish legacy we carry, and names reflect what we value in life.
This would be the expected time for me to say that if you have a secular name, your value of Judaism is worthless – if that was really the case. We all, in fact, do have Hebrew names, even if in the secular world we have an additional name. The fact that many of us do have both secular and Jewish names is very significant, that we still care about having Jewish names. As we continue to combat assimilation and stay true to our Jewish roots, let us not forget our names. It is those names that link us to the grandeur of Torah and of our ancestors, all the way back to Abraham.