How many of you do basic research with computers? It is so easy. All you do is type in the key word in Google and the auto-suggest feature completes the thought for you. A research scientist for IBM wrote a paper in which he described the auto-suggest feature as part fortune teller and part psychologist. Interestingly, the auto-suggest is a program developed in Israel. Not surprising. Jews have always been interested in predicting the future, and the portion for this week, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) offers an example.
Over a century ago, two Chasidic commentaries claimed that the first word and title of this week’s portion could be used to predict the future, not by auto-suggest, but by Notarikon – a Talmudic and Kabbalistic method of deriving a word, by using each of its initial or final letters to stand for another, to form a sentence or idea out of the words. The word “notarikon” is borrowed from the Greek language and was derived from the Latin word “notarius” meaning “shorthand writer.” Notarikon is one of the three ancient methods used by the Kannalists (the other two are gematria and temurah) to rearrange words and sentences. These methods were used in order to derive the esoteric substratum and deeper spiritual meaning of the words in the Bible. Notarikon was also used in alchemy.
Thus, the letters of Vayigash can be interpreted as follows: Vav—the number 6; Yod—the word Yihyeh, will be; Gimmel—the number 3; Shin—the Hebrew month Shevat. Put it together and it means: “If the sixth day of the week will be the third day of Shevat.” To get the rest of the message, you now read the abbreviation backward: Shin– Sheleg, Gimmel-Gadol, Yod– Yihyeh, Vav-V’kor—There will be lots of snow and it will be cold! So there’s the prediction: if the third of Shevat falls on a Friday, it will be a snowy and cold winter. And to think, the commentaries were able to come up with that years before computers. Of course, there’s another interpretation that says: If the third of Shevat falls on a Friday, Shuk Gadol Yiyeh V’Zol—there will be a good market and prices will be cheap. Notarikon can predict economics or meteorology. Take your choice.
Now, clearly all of this was meant to be playful. But it does beg a question: Why make a connection between this particular Torah portion and predicting the future? Perhaps it is merely a matter of calendar. This portion is frequently read around the end of the secular year, when people would very much like to predict what the new year will bring. It fits particularly well this year, because Vayigash is read on Shabbat, Dec. 31.
But when we read Vayigash, the content offers an even more important insight into predicting the future. This is the climactic moment of the Joseph story. Joseph is holding Benjamin prisoner. Will the brothers once again abandon one of the family? Will they simply take their food and go? Will they once more bring tragic news to their father? And so the portion begins Vayigash Eylav Yehudah— “Judah drew near to him.” Judah stepped up to Joseph, not yet recognizing him, and offered the longest speech of all of Genesis—an impassioned plea on behalf of his brother. It is the power and emotion of this that leads Joseph to reveal his identity.
Sfat Emet (the 19th century commentary of the Gerer Rebbe) notes that in the Hebrew the word Eylav, “to him,” is superfluous. The text could have simply said, “Then Judah approached,” and we would have understood it quite clearly. Eylav means Judah drew near “to himself;” he drew near to the best elements of his personality and character, which led to his deep concern for his brother. That changed everything. The outcome of an encounter that could have been tragic became an occasion for reunion and reconciliation.
As we come together at the end of one year and stand on the threshold of another, we cannot predict what the future will bring. But if we stand together, if we step forward for the sake of our brothers and sisters, our family, our community, our people…if we draw upon the best in ourselves, the best of Jewish tradition and the teachings of Torah, we can make a better future for sure. That’s the message of Vayigash. Auto suggest— it suggests that we draw near to the best in ourselves.
And by the way, this coming year, 2023, the third of Shevat does NOT fall on a Friday!