The Ultimate Mitzvah – Parshat Vayechi 5774

“Could you do me a favor?”  They are probably some of the most dreaded words in the English language.  It only takes the first few syllables before you begin coming up with a list of excuses to get out of the task.  On the flip side, the asker also has something at stake.  Besides the guilt of imposing on a friend’s busy schedule, there’s the realization that at some point you might ask them the same question and they’ll be indebted to you to say yes.  A helping hand can mean the world, but it places a burden on both parties.

The Torah is filled with favors – people helping each other out to get something accomplished.  Think about Abraham buying land for burial or asking Sarai to pretend to be his sister; these are favors that help solve problems for Abraham and Sarah. Joseph interpreting a dream for Pharaoh began as a favor and led to hisgreatness and promotion.

Our parshah this week, parshat Vayechi, the last in the first book of the Torah, Bereshit, teaches us about the ultimate favor asked.  The parshah is centered around the death of Jacob, the blessings he gives to his grandchildren, and the mourning that the brothers do for their father.  It then takes a turn and focuses on Joseph mending the final pieces of his relationship with his brothers.  But the central focus of our text is thedeath of Jacob, the death of Joseph, and what each one asks of his loved ones before he dies.  In chapter 47, verse 29,it says: “And when the time approached for Israel (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt.’”   At the end of the parshah, Joseph makes a similar request to his brothers.

When Jacob makes this request, he uses the words Chesed v’emet, which I have translated above to mean steadfast loyalty, but they also mean in their most literal sense “true kindness.”  Jacob and Joseph both ask a favor at the endof their lives.  Of course this is adifferent kind of favor.  It isn’t picking up the kids at school or covering a class.  This favor is one that they have no intention of ever paying back to those who perform it for them.  A mitzvah of true kindness is one that has no reciprocal favor anticipated.  This text asserts that one of the only mitzvot that can be defined this way is caring for the dead.  In this case, those who uphold Jacob’s and Joseph’s request understand that there is no tangible reward for this favor.

But the parshah also reminds us that perhaps we shouldn’t wait until our loved ones are gone to fulfill this level of mitzvah, to do something without the expectation of reward or reciprocity.  The name of our parshah, Vayechi, means “and he lived.” Favors can be good, but often come with the expectation of a return.  This Shabbat imagine what it would be like to live in a world where each action was done for its own purpose, not because of what you receive in return, and then challenge yourself to act with chesed v’emet, ultimate kindness.

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