Memory: How Do We Want To Be Remembered? Commentary on Parashat Vaichi 5783

By Rabbi Dena Bodian, Hebrew Seminary alum, ordained 2010; College Chaplain and Campus Rabbi at Wellesley College


2023 seems to have started as The Year I Officially Became Part Of The Sandwich Generation. Neither my parents nor my in-laws seem to be getting any younger, nor do they seem to have any plans for a stage in their life when living independently in their own homes may no longer be feasible. Over the past year, we’ve watched as a beautiful new assisted living facility has gone up right across the street, and I finally decided to put down a deposit on an apartment—without telling our parents. The two-bedroom unit (which is nicer than most condos) will be available in case they need it, and the deposit is refundable if they never use it. But it’s given me some great peace of mind to know that there’s a plan in place—just in case.

For those in a similar boat of beginning to parent aging parents, assisted living falls within a larger checklist of critical things: DNRs, funeral plans, power (and medical power) of attorney, emergency contacts, wills and executors, living wills, and—in some ways the most enduring—ethical wills.

The ethical will is an ancient Jewish custom which gives someone the opportunity to sum up what they felt were the important values by which they lived, and to articulate how they hope those values will be transmitted to the next generation.

In contrast to the image of wanting to be remembered, this week’s Torah reading finds Jacob gathering his sons around his deathbed and focusing on the future. Although he is ostensibly offering blessings to his sons, some of his statements are outright indictments, like his words to Reuven:


פַּ֤חַז כַּמַּ֙יִם֙ אַל־תּוֹתַ֔ר… אָ֥ז חִלַּ֖לְתָּ

Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer… you brought disgrace. (Genesis 49:4.)*


Some of Jacob’s charges to his sons are more descriptors of their characters:


בִּנְיָמִין֙ זְאֵ֣ב יִטְרָ֔ף

Benjamin is a ravenous wolf. (Genesis 49:27.)


Still, others are Jacob’s assessment of their political futures:


לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִֽיהוּדָ֔ה… דָּ֖ן יָדִ֣ין עַמּ֑וֹ

The scepter shall not depart from Judah… Dan shall govern his people” (Genesis 49:10 and 49:16.)


In a fun turn of coincidence, we happen to be reading Parashat Vaichi as the first Torah portion of the new secular year, with the words of Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” (Scots for “old long since,” as in, times long past) still in our ears:


Should old acquaintance be forgot,

And old lang syne?


Memory is a critical part of new year celebrations—whether secular or religious. Zikhronot (זִכְרוֹנוֹת), “remembrance,” is the central of the three themes unique to the Musaf Amidah on Rosh Hashanah. During Zikhronot, we ask God to recall our past deeds with mercy, and we call upon God to remember us. The first Rosh Hashanah Torah reading begins with God remembering Sarah:


וַֽיהֹוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה

Adonai took note of Sarah (Genesis 21:1).


That verb is used again in Parashat Vaichi, when Joseph assures his brothers that


וֵֽאלֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה׃

God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that God promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here. (Genesis 50:24–25.)


Twice, the doubled verbal emphatic form pakod yifkod (פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד, meaning “God will surely take notice”) is utilized—here as a descriptor, but more commonly as a command.

In her commentary on the parsha, Rabbi Jill Hammer describes Joseph as the one “who gives the newborn tribe the gift of memory:”


Memory is at the center of Parashat Vayechi. The stakes are high, for if the people do not remember, they will blend into Egyptian life, and the unique blessings of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah will be lost. (Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Jewish Bible, p. 69.)


Instead, by demanding that his bones later be returned to his ancestral homeland, Joseph is ensuring that future generations of Israelites will be forced to remember him in order to fulfill this request. It seems fitting that Joseph, who assimilated into Egyptian life so thoroughly that his own brothers failed to recognize him, was the one who truly understood the dangers of the Israelites’ forgetting of their history.

This emphatic verbal form is used again in next week’s portion, Shemot, but much later in the narrative than one might expect. First, God hears the cries of the Israelites:


וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם

God heard their moaning. (Exodus 2:24.)


God then remembers.


וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (Exodus 2:24.)


Then God sees:


וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

God looked upon the Israelites. (Exodus 2:25.)


And finally, God knows:


וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃

God knew them. (Exodus 2:25.)


However, it is only during the encounter with Moses and the burning bush when God returns to that earlier act of taking note:


פָּקֹ֤ד פָּקַ֙דְתִּי֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם

I have surely taken note of you. (Exodus 3:16.)


It is those emphatic words—an echo of Joseph’s four hundred years earlier—that mark a turning point for the Israelites.

In the Midrash, Serach bat Asher keeps not only the location of Joseph’s bones (sunk by the Egyptians in a lead coffin into the Nile), but also keeps the promise of redemption alive for the Israelites:


וּבַמֶּה הֶאֱמִינוּ, עַל סִימָן הַפְּקִידָה שֶׁאָמַר לָהֶם, שֶׁכָּךְ הָיָה מָסֹרֶת בְּיָדָם מִיַּעֲקֹב, שֶׁיַּעֲקֹב מָסַר אֶת הַסּוֹד לְיוֹסֵף וְיוֹסֵף לְאֶחָיו, וְאָשֵׁר בֶּן יַעֲקֹב מָסַר אֶת הַסּוֹד לְסָרַח בִּתּוֹ, וַעֲדַיִן הָיְתָה הִיא קַיֶּמֶת, וְכָךְ אָמַר לָהּ כָּל גּוֹאֵל שֶׁיָבֹא וְיֹאמַר לְבָנַי (שמות ג, טז): פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, הוּא גּוֹאֵל שֶׁל אֱמֶת, כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא משֶׁה וְאָמַר: פָּקֹד פָּקַדְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, מִיָּד וַיַּאֲמֵן הָעָם. בַּמֶּה הֶאֱמִינוּ, כִּי שָׁמְעוּ הַפְּקִידָה, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב: כִּי פָקַד ה’ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכִי רָאָה אֶת עָנְיָם וַיִּקְּדוּ וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ. וַיִּקְּדוּ עַל הַפְּקִידָה, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ עַל כִּי רָאָה אֶת עָנְיָם.

What made them believe? The sign of [God’s] redemption that had been told to them. They had this sign as a tradition from Jacob, who passed it down to Joseph, who handed it to his brothers, and Asher, son of Jacob, passed it to his daughter Serach, who was still alive. This is what he told her: “Any redeemer that will come and say to my children pakod yifkad shall be regarded as a true redeemer.” Thus when Moses came and said pakod pakadti the nation immediately believed him. (Exodus Rabbah 5:13.)**


Just as God has finally remembered a promise made to their ancestors, the enslaved Israelites recall their own tradition of a redeemer who will finally take notice of them. The annual re-telling of this narrative is, of course, still central to our ritual practice at the Passover seder. Thus memory has come—and continues to come—full circle: We remember that God remembered our ancestors, whose memories of Joseph’s mesorah (מְסוֹרָה, “tradition”) enabled our ancestors to recognize redemption when it arrives.



*All translations of the Torah borrowed or adapted from The Contemporary Torah A Gender-Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation.


**Translation from Rabbi Jill Hammer in Torah Queeries, p. 70.