“Israel settled in Egypt, in Goshen, and bought property... Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years” Genesis 47:27-28
Stop for a moment. Take a breath before reading. We haven’t gone Zen, just taking a lesson from the weekly Torah portions. Each week the sidrah begins with a space between paragraphs, a respite before the next tale. But this week’s reading,Vayechi, is different.
Vayechi begins without a break, in the middle of a paragraph. “Vayechi alone is enclosed [stuma],” comments Rashi. “Because after Jacob’s death the eyes and hearts of Israel became closed to the pain of bondage.” The reader is trapped in the text as Israel becomes entrapped in Egypt.
But what entraps Israel? Is it slavery? Joseph still sits as viceroy to Pharaoh; he would not allow Jewish enslavement. Is it economic hardship caused by the seven-year famine?
The nation lives in Goshen, the fertile Nile delta: the people are flourishing numerically and profiting financially. What really traps Israel into a story with no way out (stuma) is precisely the moment where they keep shtum (silent) to the injustice of their Egyptian neighbours.
In the same paragraph where we learn that the nation’s eyes and heart are as closed as the text itself, Joseph imposes a hard bargain on the Egyptians during the famine. Forced to sell their cattle, then land, then freedom, the Egyptians agree in desperation, “We will be slaves to Pharaoh!” (Genesis 47:25). Slavery does not begin with Israel. Slavery begins between the haves and have-nots of Egypt.
At that moment, the Israelites could have shouted out: “No! Stop this slave-story! Create the space for justice!” But Israel remains silent and the space in the text becomes as sealed as the “eyes and hearts” of the Jewish people.
A third of our world population is malnourished, another third are obese. It is time to open our eyes and hearts. Stop for a moment. Take a breath and tell a new story.