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Parshas Vayechi - Living in this World for the Next            13 Teves 5783

01/12/2023 10:10:00 AM


Is New Year's a religious day? According to some theologians, as applies to December 31st, New Year's Day is a Catholic feast day. It was long known as the Feast of the Circumcision and the Octave of the Nativity (that's just a fancy way of saying that it was the eighth day after Yashka's birth and, thus, the day he was circumcised in accordance with Jewish tradition.)

January 1st, the marking of a new year is not only a religious day for some, but its significance is connected to the entire world. Despite the association of it being a Christian day, religions throughout the world view January 1st as a non-denominational day celebrating the changing of the calendar year. As I mentioned in previous articles, the new year is notorious for making New Year’s resolutions,  firm decisions to do or not to do something for the sake of self-improvement or to make life easier. Perhaps we might compare a resolution to the Jewish concept of a ‘neder’ which is a vow. Is there a difference between the two? Well, as nouns, the difference between a vow and a resolution is that avow is a solemn promise to perform some act, or to behave in a specified manner, especially concerning a promise to live and act in accordance with the rules of a religious order. A resolution is a strong will, a determination. As a verb, a vow is to make a promise.

This past Monday, January 2nd, I was chatting with someone and mentioned that I had started exercising again, and that I’ve now been working out for three consecutive days – a chazaka -  something I had not done in over a year! He quickly responded,   “Oh, is that one of your New Year’s resolutions?” I responded,   “Well…yes and no. It was both a resolution and a vow.” He then asked me what I meant. I explained that “It was a resolution in 2022 that I would exercise that year.  I treated it as a vow because I only started working out the very last day of the year.  I intentionally avoided my ‘word’ to be desecrated. I was concerned that my declaration in the beginning of 2022, proclaiming I would begin to exercise again, would almost go afoul. In essence, I was trying to fulfill at least part of my commitment by finally fulfilling my intent to exercise, even though it was at the last possible day, leading immediately into the current 2023 year.  Hence, the three days were really the last day of last year and the first two days of this year. This was particularly poignant and concerning since we are currently studying Meseches Nedarim/Vows in the Daf Yomi cycle, providing me with a heightened awareness of fulfilling any statements I may have made during the year.  Nedarim- vows, commitments, and resolutions - must be taken seriously. In Jewish law, the parameters of both vows and oaths carry tremendous repercussions. In reviewing meseches Nedarim up until page 74 (out of 91 pages), I have not seen even one of the many components that appears in an interesting well-known story in the Torah.

The Torah states in Bereishis 45:24 וישלח את אחיו וילכו  “He sent off his brothers and they went on their way.” All Yosef’s brothers, Reuven, Shimon, and the rest, including Binyamin, were sent back to Canaan and to Yaakov so that Yehudah was able to keep his promise to his father. Yehuda, earlier in 43:9 stated: “I, myself, will be responsible for him. You can demand him from my own hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here before you, I will have sinned for all time.” We see Yehuda did fulfil his pledge to his father. If so, why then did the Chachamim, in the Gemarah Sotah 7b, say that Yehudah was punished for his guarantee (to bring Binyamin back) in so much that the bones in his coffin rattled the entire 40 years the Jewish people wandered through the desert? Rabbeinu Bachya explains the reason is because Yehudah’s vow and its fulfilment depended upon the goodwill of others. It is sinful to make such promises or vows unless the factors relating to fulfilment of the promise are all entirely under the control of the person making the promise. Yehudah had known from the outset that it would depend on the ruler of Egypt as to whether he could make good on his guarantee. The Chachamim, the sages in Gemara Makkot 11b, used this incident to formulate a halakha concerning conditional excommunication, saying that the threat of excommunication, even if conditional, requires a retroactive annulment even if, in the meantime, the party who had been threatened with such excommunication had fulfilled the conditions imposed upon him. This explains why Yehudah qualified for punishment for having guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return, despite fulfilling it.

In this week’s Parsha Veyechi, the Torah’s opening words are ויחי יעקב   - and Yaakov lived. Several commentaries explain this to mean Yaakov did not die but lived on forever. Surely, we can say he lived in this world and in the next. We, too, have an obligation to ensure our physical survival in this world and our spiritual eternal life in the next. Although our time on this earth is determined from the One above, we nevertheless must take care of the vessel we were given  always to the best of our ability. In other words, we need to be as healthy as possible by eating right, exercising regularly, and using good judgment on issues that affect our physical health and wellbeing. No less, and perhaps more importantly, are our spiritual arrangements which we need for the next world.

This week’s Shabbos Parshas Vayechi is dedicated to the awareness of ensuring a smooth transition from this world to the next when our time comes. Every year NASCK, the National Association of Chevra Kadisha, focuses on an area of Jewish importance in the here and in the after world. This year’s focus is the horrific scourge of cremation that is pervading Jewish communities throughout the United States. A zoom class has been advertised to bring this important and critical discussion forward, with the hope that perhaps any one of us can take an active part to prevent such a tragedy within the Jewish people. In addition, it is important to follow up on past discussions of estate planning, halachik wills, and end-of-life situations.  When I bring up these sensitive topics, people typically say, ”Yeh, we have to do this,” and then time goes by, and the ‘this’ gets swept under the rug for a little longer. Perhaps Parshas Vayechi usually occurs during the new secular year in order to remind us of our mortality in this world and to help us grow more deeply aware of the constant need to provide for our immortality in the world to come. Let us commit, Bli neder/without it being a vow, stating that we will take care of ourselves while living in this world, and take proper steps to also live in the next.

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784