Rashbam: Knowing When to Quit (Vayechi)

Most weekly parashot start with a space, like Vayigash (on the right). Vayechi (left) uniquely starts without a space.

The final weekly parashah of Bereishit (Genesis) begins uniquely among parashot in the Torah – not in terms of content, but because of the layout of text on the scroll. Every other parashah has physical separation in layout from the previous parashah, either a full line break or significant blank space within the line. But Vayechi continues immediately on from Vayigash as if no division existed.

The midrash, in Bereishit Rabbah 96:1, offers three explanations for why the gap has been closed. 

  1. The moment Jacob died, the Egyptians began oppressing the Israelites. Therefore, the closed gap emphasizes the approaching constriction of enslavement.
  2. Jacob sought to share the details of the Final Days (the messianic age), but his ability to prophesy was closed off from him.
  3. After the vicissitudes of life in his wanderings, Jacob was closed away from all sufferings once he arrived in Egypt. He lived the last 17 years of his life in peace.

Each of these explanations look to a larger context or deeper meaning.

Rashbam’s take is unique. He understands the continuous text not as a hint at deeper meaning, but as pointing to a natural flow between the last verse of Vayigash and the first verse of Vayechi. 

“The true beginning of this portion is the verse (Gen. 47:27) “Israel settled in Egypt.” The verse (Gen. 47:28), “Jacob lived,” [which, in fact, does begin the weekly portion] is simply a continuation of that former verse. However, the Jewish communities did not wish to end the portion Vayigash with [the section that discusses] “the land passed over to Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:20-26). Instead they ended it with the verse (Gen. 47:27), “Israel settled…” (translation adapted from Martin Lockshin)

This means the portion would most naturally begin as follows (Genesis 47:27-28): “Israel settled in Egypt, in the region of Goshen; and they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly. Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt…”

Makes sense to me! But the sages were reluctant to leave the previous parashah on a note of Pharaoh (through Joseph) dispossessing practically everyone in his land, turning them into slaves, which anticipates the turn of fortunes for the Israelites in the coming generation, who will also become slaves to Pharaoh. So they “borrow” a verse from the next section so they can end on a sweeter note.

This phenomenon of caution around knowing when to end a selection of sacred text also exists in the haftarah and in the chanting of Lamentations on Tisha b’Av, where if the final verse is sad or terrifying, the custom is to repeat the second-to-last verse and thus end with more hope. 

Endings are important, and can often frame everything that came before. It is not always clear when or how to quit (as we learned from Michael Jordan). As we enter into the end of the secular year 2018, and perhaps take on New Year’s resolutions – what in your life is ready to conclude? What can you gracefully, and with some sweetness, choose to say no to, so that the next chapter can begin with strength?