"WHY IS THIS PARASHA 'SEALED'?"
Rashi, in the footsteps of Midrash Bereishit Rabba (Tsav, 1) opens his commentary on this parasha with a homiletic explanation of the traditional transcription of this parasha:
Yaakov lived - Why is this parasha 'sealed'? (The Masoretic text of the Bible is divided into parshiot. (The division into chapters was a later innovation of Christian scholarship). There are 'open' parshiot (petuchot), the ends of which are indicated by an open space extending to the end of the line, and there are 'sealed' parshiot (s'tumot), which are followed by a space of nine letters.) When Yaakov died, the eyes and the hearts of Israel were sealed because of the distress of the servitude which had begun. An alternate explanation: He wished to divulge the end to his children but it was concealed from him." (Rashi, Bereishit 47:28)
Rashi chose to explain not the words, but rather the absence of open space between the parshiot, seeing in the 's'tumot' an allusion to two types of 's'tumot', of 'sealings': the sealing of the eyes and hearts of the people enslaved after the demise of our father Yaakov, and the sealing of Yaakov's ability to reveal the end to his sons.
True, there is no explicit evidence in the Bible that the bondage began with Yaakov's death, for it is only at the beginning of the Book of Shemot, after Yosef's death, that there arises a new king over Egypt "who did not know of Yosef", and therefore we should perhaps understand the words of the Midrash in the sense of the Midrashic explication (also adopted by Rashi) to "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years" i.e., the exile begins from the moment of Yitzchak's birth. (Rashi, Bereishit 15:13)
Another hint at the commencement of the period of bondage was found by Rabbi Yissachar Katz (author of "Matnot Kehunah", a commentary on Midrash Rabba) in the word "Vayechi", the opening word of this parasha; a number of midrashim claim that "Vayechi is a term indicating distress."
A number of commentators relate to the Midrashic determination that the bondage began with Yaakov's passing (Baalei HaTosafot, Chizkuni, "Kli Yakar"). Rabbi Efrayim of Lunchitz (author of "Kli Yakar") explains, on the basis of an exact reading of Midrash, that the lack of a space between verse 27 - "Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly" - and the opening passage of our parasha teaches us that only during the lifetime of our father Yaakov did Israel dwell in Goshen in ease and in tranquillity; afterwards the bondage began. Two possibilities are suggested:
(1) As long as Yaakov lived, the bondage was delayed in his merit and (2) The Holy One, Blessed Be He, shortened Yaakov's life span so that he not witness the enslavement of his children.
In any case, regardless of how we understand the connection between Yaakov's death and the commencement of the bondage, we must consider what happens when a people is enslaved: "The eyes and hearts of Israel were sealed." A nation that is not free, which is enslaved to another nation, loses the ability to see and the ability to feel. The master nation also loses its ability to see and feel. Blindness and insensitivity do not fall upon a nation or a person suddenly; they are the result of an extended process - the beginning stages are not felt, but the end of the process is the sinking into the 49 levels of impurity. History records many processes of gradual and inconspicuous enslavement of one nation by another; at the beginning, neither the enslaving nation nor the enslaved people is aware of the change. Whoever studies the history of the previous century and visits the Museum of the Shoah in Washington discovers that the rise of the Nazis to power caused, at the beginning of the process, blindness which succeeded in anaesthetizing the German people, a significant part of the Jewish world, and the world at large for a long time, until the overt persecutions began. Bondage seems to begin with the blindness and insensitivity of both oppressor and victim.
WHAT WAS THE "END" THAT YAAKOV WAS PREVENTED FROM REVEALING?
The "end" in this context may possibly be the end of the bondage in Egypt. Yaakov, who internalized God's promise to our father Avraham, understands that his going down to Egypt because of the famine symbolizes the beginning of the exile in Egypt; he feels a need, before his death, to equip his sons with a spiritual bequest which contains a message of hope - there will be bondage, but there will come an end. An allusion to this is his request to be buried with his fathers, and also the later request by Yosef, who assimilated the message, (Bereishit 50:25): "Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, "When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here."
Yaakov wanted to enable his sons to rely on a specific date, thinking that perhaps a defined time for liberation would lighten the yoke of slavery.
According to the "Kli Yakar", revelation of the end would have resulted in the loss of hope and in the Children of Israel's assimilation into a foreign land. It is possible, on the other hand, that the exile and the bondage were, in a certain sense, a test of their faith and hope and their willingness to be redeemed even when the appointed time for redemption is not clearly known in advance.
In most Chazal literature, however, "revelation of the end" refers to the end of days, to the Messianic era, and therefore Rashi and the author of the midrash relate to Yaakov, the father of the Jewish people in all generations, and not to the real Biblical figure who, according to a plain-reading of the text, takes leave of his children and grandchildren; "Yaakov our father did not die" (Bavli, Taanit 5b), he lives in our midst.
Our father Yaakov wanted to reveal, to his children and to us, the end of days, but he was prevented from doing so. Sometimes, in a situation when the end is revealed and has a definite "date", there exists the danger that
"such knowledge will bring with it much damage, as they will not call upon Me, and will not consult earlier generations, and they will desire to dwell permanently in the lands of the nations, on own estates in their adopted lands as residents and as those who have despaired of redemption. Therefore God hid and sealed the final end, so that in every generation they will seek the face of God and of David their king, and will not wish to be residents in the lands of the nations, and they will constantly anticipate the end of His salvation."
("Kli Yakar" 47: 28)
This danger, as described by the ""Kli Yakar"", exists when the Jewish people is in exile, under the impression that the end is known, but irrelevant to its life, and therefore establishes itself in foreign lands.
There exists, however, an opposite danger, a danger which may be more actual for the nation living today in Zion; the revelation of the end, i.e., interpretation of contemporary history in messianic terms. Not only is there presumption to understand the hidden ways of God - constituting impertinence towards Heaven - it is also liable to seal hearts and eyes.
It is possible, therefore, to homiletically expound the two midrashim quoted by Rashi in another fashion: As long as "Yaakov our father did not die", i.e., as long our moral compass (the image of Yaakov which prevented Yosef from sinning, Yaakov who condemns the acts of Shim'on and Levi) lives within us, we are not enslaved and we do not enslave others. When the Yaakov inside us dies, eyes and heart are sealed because of the tribulations of the bondage. The sorrows of the bondage are liable to lead to "the speeding up of the end" as an illusory solution and as a substitute for challenging and obligating faith. Similarly, the consciousness of the end of days is liable to pervert perception of reality, of the value of the daily coping with faith and hope in an unredeemed word, while striving to repair the world with the Kingdom of God. In this sense, this "sealed parasha" makes possible a life of challenge and faith.
Pinchas Leiser, editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist