Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) 5783/2023

The Talmud (Sotah 13a) relates a unpleasant circumstance that occurred when Jacob’s sons went to bury him. The entrance of the burial cave was blocked by their uncle (Esau), their father’s nemesis, who claimed the land belonged to him and wouldn’t allow Jacob to be buried there. Jacob’s sons got into a heated debate about the rightful ownership of the land and sent their brother Naftali back to Egypt to bring the deed of ownership to prove the site belonged to their father.  

Jacob had a grandson named Chushim who was hearing-impaired and didn’t know why his grandfather’s funeral procession was being delayed. When he was told they were waiting for Naftali to bring the deed of ownership from Egypt to refute Esau’s claim, Chushim became upset and declared, “My grandfather lies in disgrace until Naftali returns from Egypt!” He took a staff and struck Esau in the head and mortally wounded him.

The fact that the Talmud mentions Chushim’s hearing impairment implies that it is an integral part of the story. How did this disability affect his decision to take action and protest his grandfather’s disgrace? Why did he, a grandson, take action but none of Jacob’s sons did?

Jacob’s sons—who were able to hear—got caught up in the give and take of the argument with their uncle, Esau, about the ownership of the cave. They had acclimated themselves to the situation and might have been incensed at first but then they argued back. Esau retorted, then they gave their rejoinder.  This argument continued while Jacob’s corpse was laying in disgrace. Those who were able to hear did not become so upset because they had heard Esau present his arguments and were able to argue back. As time passed during the argument, they became desensitized to the terrible injustice occurring in real time before them. Chushim heard none of it as it was happening, so he didn’t get caught up in the give and take of the dispute. All he saw was his grandfather’s body lying in disgrace. When he finally heard about Esau’s ruse, he was incensed and immediately reacted. 

This story is a lesson about the human capacity to get used to a circumstance or condition. Jacob’s sons traveled all the way from Egypt to bury their father and knew he was the rightful owner of the burial site and should have simply pushed aside their deceitful uncle and buried their father. Instead, they listened to him, responded, heard more claims, gave more retorts, and just continued to argue. They got so involved with the deliberations that they lost focus of their original mission.

Their mistake has application in crucial areas of daily living. Some marriages are fraught with petty arguments about insignificant matters. “Did you leave the toothpaste open? Did you finish the toilet paper and not change it? Why should I have to turn off the lights; I’m already in bed?” When these minor scuffles become regular, the couple begins to think it’s normal. I have my point, they have theirs; I’m right, they’re wrong. These couples have lost track of their original mission; to be committed to each other and raise a Jewish family. They forgot the infinite pleasure of being in love and being loved, of caring for someone and being cared for. They once felt something special and that’s why they got married but now have gotten used to the bickering over meaningless matters and think that’s the norm.

An area many people have given up on is being happy. When people are young, they envision a bright future. Solid relationships, enjoyable work, friends, and in general an enthusiastic future. Then come life’s challenges and let downs, and people find themselves thinking that maybe this life lacking of meaningful relationships and significance is how it’s supposed to be. They forget that happiness is achievable and how great they used to feel when they were happy. They used to think they would be happy but now “realize” that happiness is just for a fortunate few who have lucked out by life’s circumstances.

When Yaakov’s sons got involved in their squabble with Esau, they forgot why they decided to leave their safe and comfortable lives in Egypt to make such an arduous journey. Burying their father was the single reason they left but even these men of their stature had temporary amnesia and forgot their objective. In Jewish consciousness we say that everyone can have a meaningful and happy life filled with physical and emotional pleasures. If you’ve given up on this reality, you too might be experiencing temporary amnesia; you’re forgetting about your dreams and visions. If not remedied, it could become permanent.   

Good Shabbos       

(Sichot Mussar 5731:32; 5733:6)