Ezra the Scribe (5th century BCE) was one of the great leaders of the Jewish people. One of his most significant achievements was the establishment of the exact format in which a sefer Torah must be written.
Our parasha, Vayechi, contains an outstanding example of his handiwork. At the beginning of all other parshiot, there is a clear indication that a new portion is about to begin, separate from the previous one. This is not the case with Vayechi, which leads Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi to ask: “Lamah parasha zu satumah? (Why is this Torah portion completely closed?).”
The Siftei Chakhamim (Rabbi Shabbeti Bass) explains: “That is to say, we have a tradition from Ezra the Scribe, may he rest in peace, that Parashat Vayechi [beginning with the word ‘vayechi’ itself] is the beginning of an entirely new section and not conjoined to the preceding parasha [that concludes] with the verse ‘vayeshev Yisrael.’ [Parashat Vayechi, however,] does not follow the standard form of a parasha satumah, since [such a section normally has a blank space in front of it] that equals the size of nine letters; in our case, the entire beginning of the parasha is totally closed without any space whatsoever. (Commentary on Rashi’s gloss, Bereishit 47:28)
Although Midrash Bereishit Rabbah offers three answers to the question, “Lamah parasha zu satumah,” the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz) summarily rejects each of them and states: “It certainly appears that there is no support whatsoever from the Torah’s text for any of these interpretations; as such, they are like false prophecies.”
This leads him to surmise that even though Vayechi and Vayigash are two separate parshiot, it is “incontrovertibly the case that Ezra the Scribe’s intention [in writing Parashat Vayechi completely satumah] was to have the verse beginning with vayechi juxtaposed to the preceding verse [from Vayigash] in order for the two pasukim to be read as: ‘And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly. And Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years,’ as if they were actually one verse.”
At this juncture, the Kli Yakar utilizes this “extended verse” concept to revisit and reinterpret the first answer Midrash Bereishit Rabbah provides to the question lamah parasha zu satumah, namely, “When Ya’akov died, shibud Mitzrayim (Egyptian servitude) began.”
In so doing, he offers two approaches to the relationship between Ya’akov’s death and the onset of the shibud: “Initially the text states, ‘And Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years,’ and teaches us through the utilization of the word, vayeshev (lived) that the Jews at that time dwelt in peace and tranquility, so much so that they were able to acquire significant landholdings in Egypt and greatly expand their population. All of this took place during the time that ‘Ya’akov lived,’ for during his lifetime each member of the Jewish community directly benefitted from zechut Ya’akov (the merit of Ya’akov). From here we may infer that his zechut ceased upon his death and so, too, all the positive outcomes it had engendered. And, according to this line of thought, Ya’akov’s death caused the onset of the Egyptian servitude.”
In sum, according to this view of the Kli Yakar, Ya’akov’s death ended the golden age described in 47:27-28, when our forebears “dwelt in peace and tranquility.” In addition, as he clarifies in further comments, the fledgling Jewish people then ceased being landowners and became enslaved to the Egyptians who strived to embitter their lives. In short, Ya’akov’s death precipitated shibud Mitzrayim.
The Kli Yakar takes the polar opposite tact in his second analysis of the juxtaposition of the last verse of Vayigash and the first pasuk of our parasha. In this scenario, rather than Ya’akov’s death triggering shibud Mitzrayim, shibud Mitzrayim led to Ya’akov’s death:
“And it is possible to say exactly the opposite, namely, the beginning of the servitude was the reason for his death, as the Holy One blessed be He shortened the years of his life so that he did not live as long as his fathers [that is, Yitzchak and Avraham] in order for him to be spared seeing his children in bondage, for the time had now arrived [as foretold to Avraham] of ‘and they will enslave and oppress them for four hundred years’.” (Bereishit 15:13)
I believe that the Kli Yakar is intimating something fascinating regarding Ya’akov’s persona. Our standard perception of Ya’akov is as ish tam yosheiv ohelim (the pure and innocent individual who dwelt in the tents of Torah), who represented the highest heights of truth, as we find in the celebrated verse: “You shall give the truth of Ya’akov, the loving-kindness of Avraham, which You swore to our forefathers from days of yore.” (Michah 7:20) As such, we rarely focus on the emotional sensitivities that infused his being.
Yet, the Kli Yakar is teaching us that Ya’akov simply would have been unable to bear seeing his children suffer in abject slavery; therefore, the Master of the Universe mercifully allowed him to die before his time, to spare him from witnessing such heart-wrenching scenes. We can now understand why Ya’akov was the perfect husband for Rachel, for they were united in their empathy for the pain and anguish of the Jewish people. As the verse states: “So says the L-rd: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter cries, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are no more.” (Yirmiyahu 31:14)
May the time come soon and in our days when Rachel will no longer weep for her beloved children and Ya’akov will no longer fear for our physical and spiritual welfare, a time when we will be blessed with true shalom al Yisrael. V’chane yihi ratzon.