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by Yoel Spotts    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

This week's Torah portion is the last section in the first of the Five Books of Moses -- Genesis. In it, we find the recounting of the final days of Jacob's life.



This week's Torah portion is the last section in the first of the Five Books of Moses -- Genesis. In it, we find the recounting of the final days of Jacob's life. Preparing for his own death, Jacob calls his newly-recovered son Joseph and blesses his children Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob then gathers his own sons and proceeds to bless each one. Finally, Jacob gives his sons final instructions for his burial. Everything seems perfectly normal, exactly the scene one would expect at a death bed. However, there are a couple of events that seem out of place. At the beginning of the Torah portion, before Jacob blesses Joseph's two sons, Jacob relates an entire story of events that took place many years before: How Hashem had appeared to Jacob and promised him the land of Israel and the promise that Jacob's descendants would be very numerous. Later on in the Torah portion, when Jacob commands Joseph not to bury him in Egypt, Jacob tangents again to recount his burial of Rachel when he entered the land of Canaan. Finally, after the blessings, Jacob once again flashes back many years before, describing in detail the purchase and history of the Cave of Machpelah where he desires to be buried. What is the nature of these flashbacks? Why does Jacob feel the need to rehash the events of many years past? It seems unlikely that these are just random flashbacks, so, therefore, we must wonder what message Jacob is trying to convey.

I think the answer to this question can be found in the special nature of this point in time in Jewish history. As noted above, this is the last Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. Just as the first Torah portion in each of the Five Books of Moses holds some importance being the beginning of a section, so too it seems logical to assume that the last Torah portion also possesses some significance as the end of an era. However, it can be argued that the last Torah portion may be even more prominent than the first -- for while the first represents the beginning of an era, the last Torah portion does not simply denote the end of an era, but the transition into a new era as well.

This can clearly be seen here. Our Torah portion marks the end of the period of the forefathers. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have laid the foundation of the Jewish people. Now, the next generation must take over. Gone is the peaceful habitat of Israel; now the Jewish people must face the new challenge of living in Egypt. Jacob, sensing this important period of transition, prepares for the future. As each of his sons stands before him, Jacob realizes that each of these brothers will be the progenitors of an entire tribe that will represent the Jewish people. Jacob thus gives each of his sons an appropriate blessing which will enable that tribe to deal with the future. In this way, Jacob lays the foundation for a smooth transition.

However, before Jacob can plot a course for the future, he must first determine the direction in which to lead the Children of Israel. How does Jacob know in which direction to steer? How can Jacob accurately guide this new nation on the right path? Clearly, in order to know where one is headed, one must first know where one has been. When one is on the road headed to a certain destination, how can one know in which direction to go, if one does not know from whence he came? For this reason, it would appear, Jacob recalls certain crucial events, as mentioned above, when blessing his children. For Jacob must first know from where this new Jewish nation has come -- what events have taken place. What has been done correctly; what must be corrected. In which path do the Jewish people seem headed; in which path should they be headed. All of these things must be accounted for before Jacob can adequately plan the future of the Jewish people. Only after having completed his retrospection can Jacob properly bless each tribe according to its needs and abilities so that it may be able to face the future on a proper track.

"If one does not learn from the lessons of history, one is doomed to repeat it." Like so many other famous sayings, this adage seems to find its origin not in the mouths of Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, but rather in the Torah. When Jacob recounts events from his youth, he is not simply reminiscing about times gone by. Rather, Jacob is setting the Jewish people on track. Jacob had to ensure that the course of the Jewish people would be set straight, so he took great pains to make sure he learnt from the lessons of Jewish history until now. Only in this way could he truly plan for the future.This message rings especially true for us today with so many challenges facing the Jewish people -- intermarriage, divisions and strifes among our own people, and the threat of numerous groups of anti-Semites. It is so important when making decisions about our future and the future of our children that we take into account not only our own past, but the history of the entire Jewish people. Only in this way can we ensure the proper path of the Jewish people. As we all know, many people claim to be capable of making predictions. However, it is clear that only by realizing the past can one really know the future.


Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is currently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.

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