Reflections on Parashat Vayechiby Jacob Cytryn, Director

The Joseph novella constitutes the final four parashiyot in the book of Genesis.  In the second verse of the first part of the story (parashat Vayeisheiv), Joseph’s story begins with these words:

אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה Eileh tol’dot ya’akov: Yosef ben-sh’va-esrei shanah “These are the generations of Jacob:  Joseph was 17 years old …”  (Genesis 37:1)

The first verse of the final part of the story, this week’s parashahVayechi, begins the conclusion of Joseph’s story with these words:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה. Vayechi Ya’akov b’eretz mitzrayim, sh’va esrei shanah. Vay’hi y’mei-Ya’akov, sh’nei chayav: sheva shanim, v’arba’im umat shanah. “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.  So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.” (Genesis 47:28)

The parallel could not be more obvious.  Joseph, Jacob’s son, spent a total of 34 years with his father, broken up into two periods of seventeen years apiece.  The first 17 years are the first seventeen years of Joseph’s life, those leading up to the beginning of his story for our purposes.  At the age of 17 he is sold by his brothers to a passing caravan bound for Egypt.  The second 17 years are at the end of Jacob’s life, after father and son are reunited in Egypt.

Let’s do some over-analyzing and dig into the numerical significance of the numbers used in this opening verse of our Torah reading:  17 and 147.  Both numbers are likely making a statement about Joseph and Jacob while combining, in different ways, two of the most powerful numbers in the Torah: 7 and 10.  Both numbers, in their own way, represent wholeness or completion.  The seven day week and notion that the end of the seven day cycle (Shabbat), seven week cycle beginning with Passover (Shavuot), seventh month (Tishrei), seventh year (Sabbatical), and seventh set of seven years (Jubilee) are special is spelled out directly in the Torah itself.  The importance of ten, which more likely than not is directly related to the most obvious thing for human beings to count (our fingers!), has less direct importance to biblical religion but still plays a significant role.

So the two seventeens are combinations of seven and ten (7+10).  And Jacob’s lifespan is twice seven times ten plus an additional seven (or, if you prefer, three jubilee cycles – seven times seven times three).  The number 70(7×10) plays an important role elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible: the book of Exodus famously begins by informing us that 70 members of Jacob’s family went down to Egypt (1:5) and, in the book of Numbers Moses and Aaron appoint seventy elders, the precedent for the rabbinic high court or Sanhedrin.  In Psalm 90 we read:  “The days of our years are 70; or with strength 80.”

Why all this talk of 7s and 10s?  In the coming months, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding and, with it, the founding of the entire Ramah Camping Movement.  We have reached a ripe old age, and yet, unlike the Psalmists critique of human vanity, we remain vibrant and young.

Seventy years ago at this time, Henry Goldberg, the first Director, was recruiting some of the one hundred campers who would be the first campers to experience the fun, friends, and holistic Jewish living on the shores of Lake Buckatabon.  He was working with the dynamic and visionary educators who set up camp’s program, many of whom would go on to illustrious careers in Jewish education.  The historical climate may have been as tumultuous as ours is today, with questions lingering of recently-concluded wars and emerging new enemies, as well as tension between the leaders of the yet-to-be-born State of Israel and the brand new United Nations.

On February 11th in Chicago we will be celebrating our 70th anniversary (learn more about it here: www.RamahAt70.com) and we hope you’ll all (ages 21 and older) attend.  It will be a special evening of great camp fun and seeing old friends.

The entire summer of 2017 will be an opportunity to celebrate our historical strengths and the way forward into our next 70 years.  Our campers will have opportunities to engage with the fundamental questions of our founders: how to create a community from nothing.  We will explore the original motivating ideas behind summer camps from the 1880s and 1890s, especially character building and moral education.  We will sing songs and hear stories from all of our seven decades, creating opportunities for intergenerational engagement and learning.  We will do it all knowing that the sole purpose of looking backward is to launch ourselves forward.

We launch ourselves forward as the Torah does, from the complicated lives of Jacob and Joseph that recede into history’s rearview mirror as the seeds of our nation’s founding redemption have been planted by two of our great ancestors.  We can quibble over how they lived their lives; their legacies are filled with 7s and 10s. May Ramah, too, go from strength to strength.

Here’s to seventy more years. Shabbat Shalom