a.k.a. Parasha Veyechi
known as Israel, lived in Egypt for 17 years and then his health failed. Before he died he persuaded Joseph to
promise not to bury him in Egypt, but to take his body back to the family burial plot in Canaan. Jacob reminded
Joseph that God had blessed him and promised to make a great nation of his descendants. He informed Joseph that
he was adopting his two sons, Manaseh and Ephraim, to inherit their full share from him. Then Jacob blessed the
boys, but reserved his special blessing for the younger boy, Ephraim. When Joseph objected, Jacob explained that
Ephraim’s descendants would become a greater tribe. Then Jacob called all his sons together and delivered a
speech to each, outlining what he saw as each one’s special characteristics, and the future of each tribe that
would descend from each of them. The longest and most significant blessings were reserved for Joseph and Judah.
“The sceptre shall not leave Judah,” said Jacob. Then, after reminding all that he wished to be buried in
Canaan, Jacob died with his sons gathered around him.
for his father, and then ordered that Jacob’s body be embalmed. Jacob’s passing was mourned in Egypt. Joseph
asked Pharaoh’s permission to leave his duties and bury his father in Canaan. Not only did Pharaoh agree, he
sent Egypt’s leading noblemen to attend the ceremonies. A week long mourning ceremony was held beyond the Jordan
River, and then the mourning party moved on and buried Jacob in Canaan. After the burial rites, Joseph and his
brothers returned to Egypt.
brothers feared that with Jacob dead, Joseph might turn against them and take his revenge for their previous
mistreatment of him. They sent a message to Joseph, saying that Jacob had asked Joseph to forgive them. Joseph
allayed their fears, saying that even though the brothers had done him a terrible wrong, it was part of God’s
plan to bring him to Egypt to help with the famine. Joseph promised to look after the brothers and their
lived in Egypt and became a great-grandfather. Before he died, Joseph told his brothers that God would lead them
out of the land of Egypt and back to Canaan. He asked that his bones be taken back to the land of his
forefathers. When he died, his body was embalmed and put in a coffin in Egypt for the time being.
Commentary on the 12th parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: Here we have you at your best and worst, Methuselah. What do you want first – the
good news or the bad?
MS: I don’t accept your judgments on my work, Sigmund, so it matters little whether you
praise or damn me first.
SAS: I’ll start with some fulsome praise. This episode of Jacob’s death, which I regard as
complete literary invention, is a fine example of how a person should die – surrounded by family, considering
his life’s works, adopting the grandsons of a beloved wife, and looking to the future of the people of which he
is a revered forerunner. Jacob dots every “i” and crosses every “t”, and gets a firm promise that his body will
be buried with his ancestors. It’s the finest death on literary record, I think, and this from a culture that
reveres life above all else! You are death’s ultimate Public Relations Officer,
MS: I certainly didn’t set out to make death sound attractive. But I did want to record a
great man’s death in such a way that our people appreciate that death is another part of life that needs to be
handled well. If you die well, you round off your life in a strong, solid and responsible
SAS: Yes, that message comes through clearly, and I am all for it. This is an idyllic
piece of prose and I admire it tremendously.
MS: Thank you. So what’s your objection?
SAS: Nothing that harms its literary appeal – it’s just that you present the episode as
fact and it clearly isn’t. Your literary cleverness gives you away here, my friend. You got too smart for your
own good. I think there is clear evidence of your dishonesty here.
MS: I resent that!
SAS: Resent all you like. But here’s the truth of it. You came across a collection of old
tribal songs and you wanted to put them into the Torah. You decided to put them into the mouth of Jacob on his
deathbed. Your reasons were clever – a great Jewish patriarch is given the privilege of foreseeing a large part
of his nation’s future. You are showing us, by your literary sleight of hand, that because God know the future,
he can show it to Jacob. This is the special blessing he gives to Jacob, right at the end of his life. This is a
little trick of yours.
MS: As I’ve told you before, God transcends time, and, of course, knows the future of
humankind. He gave Jacob foreknowledge of each tribe’s history.
SAS: Nonsense! Not even you believe that, and I resent your pretence. The songs that Jacob
sings refer to events leading up to the time of King David, and perhaps even Solomon. The special blessing given
to Judah by Jacob presupposes knowledge that King David would be a descendant of Judah, and would indeed become
the second king of the land of Judah, hence the reference to the “sceptre” not leaving Judah’s
MS: Yes, of course the Davidic Kingdom is being referred to. But prove to me that God
could not have shown part of the future to Jacob. Go on! I challenge you!
SAS: Of course I can’t prove that because …
MS: I knew you couldn’t!
SAS: It’s impossible to disprove a phantom notion, my friend! Anyway, you betray the
Jewish prophetic tradition with this story. The prophets are not, as a rule, foretellers – they are
“forthtellers”, interpreting events of the present in the light of God’s covenant with his people. You, above
all, should appreciate that! We are not a people obsessed with magic, like some other religious groups I could
MS: I know that. But we compilers of traditional material reserve the right to show God
revealing the future to some specially blessed people.
SAS: Reserve the right! You’ve given yourself away, my friend! You have usurped the power
of God himself in these narratives, inventing so-called scriptural truth for future generations.
MS: A very poorly chosen expression for someone who doesn’t believe in God!
SAS: Don’t try to wriggle out of this one with semantically based insults! You put whole
chunks of oral material from a later age into Jacob’s mouth for literary effect. It’s compelling stuff, I agree.
But don’t insult us by expecting us to believe he actually sang these songs on his
MS: With God, anything is possible.
SAS: With imagination and literary talent, anything is possible!
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews in Poland and Lithuania (1098-1795)
The Crusades prompted Jews in Europe to look eastward. Poland proved a popular
destination because of the accommodating attitude of King Boleslaus III (reigned 1102-1139), who believed
Jews could boost the Polish economy. The move proved mutually beneficial. Later, in 1264, Prince Boleslaus
the Pious proclaimed a General Charter of Jewish Liberties that gave Jews freedom of trade, travel and
The reign of Casimir the Great (1333-1370) started promisingly for Polish Jewry. His
Wislicki Statute increased Jewish rights and all went well until the outbreak of the Black Death in Europe
(1347). While Poland was spared the worst of the plague, the locals followed the rest of Europe’s ignorant
masses by blaming the Jews, and 10,000 were killed in massacres in Krakow, Glogow and
In 1386 Lithuania and Poland
were united by a royal marriage. Jews in Lithuania were granted a special charter in 1388 that gave them the
same status as the lesser nobles and other free citizens. Communities in Minsk, Brest, Grodno, Trakai and Lutsk quickly prospered in the wake of this proclamation. However,
persecution of Polish Jews resulted, and continued in the 15th century. Then, in 1495, Jews were
expelled from Lithuania. They were allowed to return in 1503, but attempts to reclaim their property were not
Under Zygmunt I Stary (1506-1548) and Zygmunt II August
(1548-1572), Polish Jews enjoyed their finest years. Zygmunt II made provision for kahals, autonomous Jewish communities. As anti-Semitism spread in the late
sixteenth century, however, the Jewish situation in Poland and Lithuania deteriorated. In Lithuania, the
clergy stirred up anti-Jewish sentiment on religious grounds while the lesser nobles envied the Jews because
of their business successes. Such antipathy found legal expression in a statute of 1566 that decreed that
Jews could not wear any ornaments, men had to wear yellow caps and women items of yellow linen. Legal
protections remained in place, however.
Disaster struck in 1648 when a civil war in the
Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth commenced. The Commonwealth forces were pitted against the Ukrainan Cossacks
led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who was bent on ridding the Ukraine of Polish and Ruthenian noblemen and
Jews. Khmelnytsky said the locals had been sold into the hands
of “accursed Jews” and during 1648-1649 his forces killed approximately 100,00 Jews and laid waste to 300
Over a million members of the Commonwealth died during
the Cossack uprising, and the impact on the economy was immense. In the aftermath of the devastation, Jews
received fresh concessions, and a new charter in 1672, but this did little to help their financial situation.
Attempts were made to re-establish the power of the kahals but
this failed, and while Jews remained in control of commerce and industry in Lithuania, these institutions
were in serious decline. Life went on, but not as before.
Poland, meanwhile, had been overrun by the Swedes
(1655-1658) and Jews were caught in the middle of the conflict, attacked by the Swedes, and by Poles who
thought they were collaborating with the enemy. Things improved somewhat after the conflict, but under the
Saxon dynasty (1697-1763) religious tolerance was forgotten. Christian-Jewish conflict escalated, and
Christian students regularly attacked Jews.
The first partition of Poland took place in 1772, with
Prussia, Austria and Russia all getting some land. Many Polish Jews suddenly found themselves under Austrian
and Russian jurisdiction. The second partition of Poland took place in 1793, not without resistance in which
a Jewish regiment fought. The third and final partition took place in 1795. Most of the Jews in what had been
Poland ended up under Russian control.
The cultural legacy of the Jews in Poland was highly
significant. It included the establishment of gymnasiums (special high schools), known as Yeshivot, and a number of Jewish printing houses. Talmudic scholarship
flourished, with the school of Jacob Pollak being especially revered. The Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical
tradition) was enthusiastially studied too. The teachings of Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), the Baal Shem Tov, were influential in the rise of
The Jews of Poland and Lithania lived in shtetls and
worshipped in wooden synagogues. Shtetls were small towns or villages in rural areas.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by the Father, Chaya and
CHAYA: Dad, it’s remarkable
how completely things could change for us. At one point our people were given significant rights in Lithuania
and then a century later we had to leave. That’s a dramatic turnaround.
DAD: But hardly unusual,
Chaya. And just because things went well for a while, our people never banked on this being a permanent state
of affairs. We were always ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It’s one of the reasons why we have always
built up skills that we could transport from place to place to make our livings – transportable commerce,
medical skills, educational and academic knowledge and the like.
CHAYA: It’s all very well
having transportable skills and being able to survive, but every people wants to settle down, feel stable and
feel rooted in a particular part of the world. You can see that in the way towns like Minsk and Brest
flourished when times were good. Our people wanted to stay, make a permanent contribution and feel
accommodated. The Wandering Jew gets second best.
DAD: To be sure. That’s one
of the true tragedies of our history – that we settle in a place, flourish there, and create a vibrant and
memorable way of life, and then suddenly have to pack up and leave it all behind. The shtetl culture of Jews
in Eastern Europe is one really good example of this.
BEN: I can’t believe we’re
talking about this rather than more important things. The thing that stands out in this history is the
Cossack murders. I want to discuss that.
DAD: And well we might – some
historians claim that Khmelnytsky killed a greater percentage of our people than Hitler did. I can’t imagine that’s true, but it highlights the enormity of the atrocity. Some
historians claim several hundred thousand Jews were killed during this episode, and not the 100,000 usually
claimed. It was an appalling moment in history and should never be forgotten. The
world’s overriding interest in the Holocaust should not blind us to episodes in our history that foreshadowed
it. The Cossack massacres constituted a veritable holocaust. It’s worth paying attention to this period in
our history, understanding it, and remembering those 300 communities that were wiped clean off the face of
CHAYA: Were the Cossacks ever
called to account for this outrage?
DAD: No, of course they
weren’t. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was hailed at home as the liberator from Polish overlordship. He set himself up as the
ruler of the Ukraine and he unified Ukrainian society. Even though the Ukraine was later divided between
Russian and Commonwealth control, Khmelnytsky remained a hero and his statue still stands in
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humour, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· Long life to the one who invented the bagel!
- If you want to be what you are not, you will also be not what you
- A Jew on a desert island will build two synagogues – so that he will have one he
does not want to go to.
- When brains are needed, muscles won’t help.
- To a wedding you walk. To a divorce you run.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate
the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having an
extraordinary impact on those around them.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Freud was raised in Vienna.
He is the founder of psychoanalysis. Religion was examined and analysed by Freud, who declared himself an
atheist. Freud has been massively influential in two related but distinct ways. He simultaneously developed a
theory of the human mind and human behaviour as well as clinical techniques for attempting to help neurotics. He
considered religion to be little more than neurosis on a mass scale, a reversion to infantile wishes to overcome
helplessness by connecting with an omnipotent father-figure in the sky. His book, “The Interpretation of Dreams”
in 1900 demonstrated that dreams were the path to the unconscious. It has often been claimed that the most
significant contribution Freud made to Western thought was his argument for the existence of an unconscious
mind. “The Oedipus Complex” and “a Freudian slip” are just two of his concepts which have remained in common
usage. When asked what was Jewish in his teachings, Freud responded “not very much, but probably the main
thing.” He died in England from cancer after being forced to leave
Vienna by the Gestapo.
Nahum Goldmann (1895-1982)
Nahum Goldmann was born in Lithuania. He was a very young supporter of Zionist ideals,
which led to his involvement in Jewish affairs. After a brilliant academic career at Heidelberg University
where he obtained two doctorates, he worked in the years after WWI as a journalist. In 1923, with his friend
Jacob Klatzkin, he started the German language Encyclopedia project which was eventually stopped by the Nazis
and finally completed in 1972 in English. He worked hard to
establish the World Jewish Congress and became its first Chairman in 1936. He moved to the USA in 1940 and
tried desperately to get help to fight the destruction of European Jewry. Probably his most important achievement was to bring about the agreement in
1951 whereby the German Federal Republic agreed to pay moral and material reparations to the State of Israel.
He placed the problem of Soviet Jewry on the international and Jewish agenda and organised the unified Jewish
representation at the Vatican in connection with the Second Vatican Council. Though a strong supporter of
Israel, Goldmann was also a strong supporter of the idea of a healthy Diaspora. He was concerned about Jewish
assimilation and fought to strengthen Jewish education, culture, and institutions outside of Israel. His
idealism relating to compromises between Israel and the Arab world made him unpopular in Jewish circles,