Shabbat Vayehi 5783

“What the magic word?” We probably know this expression from our childhood, when we were taught to say things like “please” and “thank you.” Or maybe we think of mythic tales with words like “abracadabra,” which, by the way, has an Aramaic origin (avra kedabra–I will create as I speak”).
As we arrive at the end of Sefer Bereshit this week in Parshat Vayehi, we bid farewell to its final main character, Yosef. As he prepares to die, he tells his brothers: “God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that he promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24). The Hebrew phrase that is translated as “will surely take notice” is pakod yifkod, which is a classic Biblical Hebrew repetition of the same verb to indicate emphasis (hence, “surely.”). What exactly does the Hebrew root p-k-d indicate? And how is it eventually to be used?
We will find this phrase again next week, when God enlists Moshe to be the divinely appointed messenger to Pharaoh and to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt. He is to use this phrase upon presenting himself to the Israelite elders (Exodus 3:16), which he apparently does, because it’s the reason they accept his authenticity (4:31). It’s also the impetus for Moshe’s search for Yosef’s bones at the time of the Exodus (13:19). Apparently, it’s the “magic word” that everyone expects to hear when redemption is at hand.
What does the phrase mean in its original context, and how are they the ultimate “reassuring words,” magical in a way, when shared later? Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century Lithuanian scholar known as the Netziv, explained that Yosef needed to reassure his brothers that after his death they would continue to find sustenance. He was, after all, their meal ticket in Egypt. Yosef promises his brothers that God will provide for them for the remainder of exile. That means that when Moshe arrives on the scene using these “magic words,” not only does it affirm his authenticity as God’s messenger, but it also implies that as scary as it will be to leave behind the familiarity of Egypt (they may enslave us, but at least they feed us), God will provide.
Certain words work their magic on us because we associate them with moments in our lives when we needed reassurance, and those words did the trick. Maybe it isn’t actually the words, but more so the memory of the person who said them. What that means is that while the words themselves aren’t necessarily magical, we–when we act with compassion and commitment to the needs of others–have “magical” powers. A word of kindness–what a great way for us to work our magic!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise
Candle lighting: 4:24 PM
Torah Reading: Genesis 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12