I wrote this for JTS Community Learning parashat Vayehi 5781. I hope that you'll please check out the full commentary and more on the site here.
Just about anyone who has moved homes will agree that sometimes one place will take on outsize influence in our lives. Indeed, even environments in which we’ve only briefly resided can have a resounding impact on our upbringing and outlook.
I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived there until I was nine years old, at which point my family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida. After three years in Florida, we moved to Overland Park, Kansas, where I had my bar mitzvah and completed middle school and high school. Following high school, I moved again to go to college in Boston. Ask someone who knows me well where I’m from and they will likely answer Kansas. To this day, I root for Kansas City sports teams and maintain an affinity for all things Midwest. Though the number of years I lived in Kansas City is less than my time in Charleston or in my current home, New York, my Kansas experiences and connections shaped me in ways that my other homes did not.
Parashat Vayehi opens with an invitation to recognize that Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt was not insignificant, even if he lived in Egypt for only a small fraction of his entire lifespan. “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years” (Gen. 47:28). What is the text trying to impart to us with the distinction between the 17 years he lived in Egypt and the total 147?
Vayehi begins in a way that is unique among the weekly parshiyot: between every two other parshiyot in the Torah we can see a break—either a parashah petuhah, an “open” line break, or a parashah setumah, a “closed” extended mid-line space. Vayehi is the exception: it begins without any clear demarcation of the end of the parashah that comes before it, Vayiggash. Rashi’s very first comment on Vayehi addresses this, explaining that the difficulties of the Israelite slavery began when Jacob passed away. Rashi points out that the totally closed nature of the text, with no extra space, shows that “the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed because of the misery of the bondage which [Egypt] began to impose upon them.” Rashi wants us to take note of the continuation of the story of the people of Israel even in Jacob’s death. I’m reminded of my wife’s late bubbie who was fond of saying: “I try to live every day with my eyes wide open.” It’s as if Rashi wants us to read the text with our eyes wide open, finding meaning in every detail, despite the closing of the hearts and eyes of the people of Israel.
Hizkuni (Hezekiah bar Manoah), a 13th-century French rabbi and Bible commentator, gives further reasoning for understanding Vayehi as inextricably interwoven with what preceded it in Vayiggash. Jacob’s provisional move to Egypt due to economic pressure and famine turned out to be anything but temporary. Once Jacob arrived in Egypt and was re-united with Joseph, the previous anguish and trouble of his life were closed.
Therefore, the later commentator Keli Yakar notes, immediately after telling us that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years the text says, “The years of Jacob’s life were 147” (Gen. 47:28). It is almost as if these final years were so good to Jacob and his family that the past was forgotten and it was as if his whole life had been enjoyable. He may have intended his time in Egypt to be short-lived, but in the end it was more than a blip of his life. Jacob’s family took root in the land and prospered.
Hizkuni further suggests that “all the years of Jacob until he settled in Egypt could not truly be described as חיים— life”—seeing that they were all clouded by different kinds of anguish. “It was only during his last 17 years in Egypt that his mind was at rest and not beset by worries of one kind or another. According to Hizkuni, this verse was inserted in the Torah as a compliment to Joseph, who was the cause of Jacob’s last years being happy ones. During those years he repaid his father who had sustained him for the first 17 years of his life, by providing for him during the last 17 years of Jacob’s life.
As someone who has moved around, there are times when I am nostalgic for past experiences. I am at times compelled to try to piece things together and see how one place I lived, or one life experience, can directly link to another. I see the merit of each place and aspire to enjoy it to the fullest. Part of moving and settling in new places means determining what to keep with you and to leave behind. It means remembering your background while also paying attention to the present and the future.
As such, my Midwestern association contributes to who I am as a person and as a rabbi. When I first lived in New York following college, I would periodically visit my parents in Kansas, and on my return flight to NYC I used to feel a little anxious about the pace of life I would reencounter. Nowadays, more than ten years later, while my time in Kansas City has had a lasting impact on me, I am accustomed to the New York way of life.
Jacob’s story shows us that life is fluid, and it can change course at any time. How we manage the changes and the people around us is one way to determine a life well-lived. The “closed opening” of Vayehi reminds us of the need to pay attention because, as the saying goes, “life is in the details.”
(This is a transcript (more or less) of the story I shared at the Riverdale Y pre-Shavuot Story Slam)
My first summer at Ramah Darom was the camp's inaugural summer - 1997. An eager junior counselor excited to join the venture of a new summer camp, I arrived at the hotel DoubleTree for staff week because much of the camp was an active construction site. During our preparation and training, we heard about mud roads, scaffolding on some of the primary buildings, and unfinished cabins that needed their ceiling fans and dryers. When we arrived to camp, the campgrounds were replete with natural beauty and the facilities - filling with campers and staff - were full of promise and possibility.
During that first summer at camp, I got to know the omanut lady – the camp art director or artist-in-residence. One of my campers was her nephew and, during a subsequent summer when I was a rosh edah - division head - another one of her nephews was in my edah. I must have made a lasting impression on them because, at the conclusion of that summer as rosh, Dafna (omanut lady) gave me a yad - a Torah pointer. To this day, the yad is one of my favorite pieces of Judaica. Constructed entirely from wood - coccobollo and olive wood to be specific - the yad was delivered in a box with a maple lid and Australian mahogany in the base. The note with the yad said it requires no further care other than for me to read from and study Torah for many years to come with it.
Inscribed on the box is a verse from Pirkei Avot that for many years now has been one of my favorite teachings and comes to mind when I think about my Jewish vision. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." (Ben Bag Bag) “Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…” The notion of returning and constantly engaging in something with meaning and purpose was a big part of why I attended Ramah for many summers beyond that as a camper and into my young adult years to most recently as a parent and rabbi/educator. The verse and the yad together are what I love about Jewish living, and I derive great benefit from Torah study - reading and writing when I give myself the chance.
Albeit a gift from someone else, the yad represents the gifts that I strive to give to others through Torah study. More than pointing at words on a page (or scroll), I enjoy the nuance and additional meaning that exists in the space between the words - the ambiguity even - of some texts. The yad symbolizes my quest for meaning and has instilled in me the value of learning a text again and again - Hafoch ba ve-hafoch ba…”
Some summers after those initial ones at Ramah Darom, I returned with my family for a Family Camp. Within minutes of getting out of the car, I watched my son (probably two or three years old at the time) begin to gently kick rocks in the parking lot seeing what would happen. Maybe he thought he was testing gravity and we thought he was testing our patience, yet I reflect on the time that he experimented in a new space - just as we tried to do - wondering what he was doing there, who he might see and, of course what he would bring home with him. He may not have recognized at his young age the magic of camp. I knew then and appreciate even more today, the mountains of possibility when we immerse ourselves in a community dedicated to Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish experimentation.
With the recent celebration of Shavuot, I looked back on these camp experiences and felt like I've been here before; that somehow I am, as I was then, working remotely toward something waiting for it to happen. I am on the outside looking in, like so many of us, beginning to see summer stare us in the face and wondering what will happen. Just as I trained and planned for camp at the Double Tree hotel during the summer of 1997, I am again living in one reality preparing (hoping maybe) for another. However this summer will be different, I believe that we'll have opportunities to kick rocks and explore new spaces. With my yad as my inspiration to keep studying and Shavuot as a reminder of the mountain of possibilities when we "turn it and turn it" in study, I anticipate a summer that may not be worth repeating but will instill in all of us something new that we can take with us as we move forward out of this pandemic.
When I was a kid, my family moved to Kansas City so my father could be the new senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. There are indeed Jews in Kansas and, when it comes to professional football, most root for the Kansas City Chiefs. I have fond memories of attending many games with my father thanks in large part to the generosity of some of his congregants. Many of these individuals became lifelong family friends and I enjoyed kosher tailgating (BBQ and more!) with some of them on more than one occasion. During one Chiefs game my father and I had the privilege of visiting the Chiefs press box and meeting HOF QB Len Dawson and former radio play by play announcer Kevin Harlan who now works for Fox and will likely be part of today's telecast. On another occasion, we dined at Royals stadium restaurant followed by a MNF Chiefs game next door.
One of my most memorable experiences occurred off the field when I attended a local radio station's meet and greet with Chiefs' players and personnel. I got a football autographed by Dave Krieg, Willie Davis, Dale Carter, Tim Barnett, Dan Saleamua, GM Carl Peterson, and more. I share this not to brag, rather to illustrate how a love of KC sports was instilled in me as a young man. Needless to say, I became a huge KC fan. While some of the autographs are illegible or faded, my love for the Chiefs is quite apparent.
My enthusiasm for the teams - instilled in me in different ways - is why I easily and often share my love of KC teams with my family. It does help that the Chiefs are coached by Andy Reid who used to coach the Eagles, the team my wife grew up cheering. In our family, we have Chiefs pennants, hats, and shirts. I also have socks and a coffee mug, and one of our boys received a Chiefs fleece throw blanket as a birthday present from some of his friends.
To see the KC Chiefs reach Super Bowl LIV is just emotionally uplifting While I will be watching on TV with my family and friends instead of attending live, I expect it will be as exciting as ever. The Chiefs play with an energy and spirit that I find unique, and I applaud the way they play together and believe in themselves when others might not. Just like any sports team, they have overcome adversity, and have found ways to win when at times it seemed unlikely. More than anything, these players have demonstrated a commitment to the greater KC area and causes bigger than themselves with as much tenacity as they give to the game itself.
Regardless of the game's outcome, this is already a big win for me, the city where I grew up, and the entire kingdom of Chiefs fans.
Waking up on Sunday morning knowing that I am heading to a yearly tradition of joining a community as their rabbi for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is exhilarating and daunting. I'll admit, because I haven't had my first cup of coffee yet, that my nerves are in full effect. This year it's a new community for me, one that I can get to by car and, therefore, I will approach without the anxiety of hurricane weather patterns, flight delays, and water damage. And, because of the news that arrived to my email inbox last night motzei Shabbat from Dunkin Donuts (yes, I too have sinned) I will drive comforted and excited that today is national coffee day.
That's right! It is exciting to map out the service and set out on a course with (or without) a GPS for our souls. Today in particular my cup overflows with something sweet (thank you Trader Joe's), a hint of Splenda and a splash of Lactaid milk. While I am partially awakened by the aromas leftover from Shabbat and Havdallah, I really look forward to the sounds of my coffee maker (pre-set of course) that will help usher me into a beautiful fall day and a drive toward Pennsylvania. This new year is going to be great because erev yontif is also national coffee day. The year may also be one of the best because it is finally a three-letter acronym
Wishing everyone a year of health, happiness, and really good coffee!
My kids are back in school (chances are, so are yours), and I have been reflecting on a comment my older son made earlier in the summer. I had picked him up at the end of day camp that he and his brother were attending in nearby Inwood park. Most of the daily programming occurred outside, but there were some days because of weather or simply as part of the program took place in the church across the park entrance. At the end of this day in particular, he shared that it felt weird being inside a church.
Parent, Partner, Teacher and Coffee Enthusiast, Rabbi Rafi Cohen enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives. Rabbi Cohen is the director of admissions for the Rabbinical & Cantorial Schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.