Last week Parsha Vayigash ended with Jacob and his brothers taking up residency in Goshen and thriving there. In Vayahei, the story continues.
Jacob, now 147 years old and near death, sends for Joseph and makes him promise to bury him in Canaan (the resting place of his fathers), rather than in Egypt. Sometime later, Joseph was informed that Jacob was ill and went, along with his sons Ephrayim and Menasheh, to visit him. Jacob tells Joseph that Ephrayim and Menasheh would be counted among Jacob's own sons and would each head a Tribe. Jacob kissed, hugged and came close to bless Ephrayim and Menasheh, placing his right hand on Ephrayim (the younger) and his left hand on Menasheh (the elder). Joseph thought that Jacob had mistakenly reversed the order of his hands and tried to correct them. However, Jacob refused to change the position of his hands, predicting that while Menasheh's descendants would be great, Ephrayim's would be even greater. Jacob calls each of his sons to his bedside, blesses them, prophesies about each Tribe's future and describes each Tribe's special attributes and characteristics. After instructing his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, Jacob dies.
Joseph falls upon Jacob's face and weeps. The Egyptians mourn Jacob's death for seventy days. With Pharaoh's permission, Jacob, along with his brothers and their households and the elders of Egypt, return to Canaan to bury Jacob in the Cave of Machpelah. On the return trip to Egypt, Joseph's brothers fear that, now that Jacob is dead, Joseph will seek retribution and so they seek his pardon. Joseph reassures them that he will not seek revenge, assuring them that he will continue to support them and their children. Before Joseph's death, Joseph makes the Children of Israel promise to take along his remains with them when God returns them to Israel. Joseph dies at 110 and is placed in a coffin in Egypt.
The blessings and prophecies that Jacob provided to each of his sons tells us a lot about his understanding of human behaviour. With little actual information that speaks directly about Jacob’s merits as one of the 3 patriarchs, these blessings provide us with a unique look at the sensitivity and intelligence of Jacob. Here is an analysis from the Orthodox Union of Rabbis.
Work to not act impulsively. Jacob told Reuben that he was "unstable as water and would not have pre-eminence". The Torah's metaphor shows us that, just as water flows quickly, so is the behaviour of someone who acts impulsively. If we don't weigh the consequences of our behaviour, we can make many harmful mistakes and cause much damage.
All traits must be utilized in appropriate amounts. In talking about Simon and Levi, Jacob said "I will divide them among the rest of Jacob and spread them among Israel". The Chacham Sofer explains that while Simon and Levi overreacted with violence for Dinah's benefit, the other brothers did nothing. By "spreading out" their anger among the other brothers, Jacob was ensuring that they would all have this trait in the proper amount. To be a complete person, every trait must be used, although we must look to the Torah to clarify the right time, place and amount for each trait.
Power over oneself is real power. Jacob said: "Judah is a lion's whelp, from the prey, my son, you have gone up." Rashi notes that Judah elevated himself in two ways -- by stopping his brothers from killing Joseph and by publicly embarrassing himself to save Tamar. Rabbi Yeruschem Levovitz cites the Kuzari that righteous is one who rules over himself and his impulses; such a person is worthy of being a ruler over others, because he will rule with the same righteousness with which he rules himself, and is why Judah merited being the Tribe of the future Kings of Israel.
True peace of mind comes from being able to accept all circumstances. About Yissachar, Jacob said: "And he saw that rest was good, and the land that it was pleasant, and he bowed his shoulders to bear." Why was the Torah given at Mt. Sinai (in the wilderness) and not in the calm and peacefulness of Israel? Rabbi Levovitz noted that this is to teach us that true peace of mind doesn't come from physical comforts, but from an awareness of one's ultimate life goals. When you focus on this, you are constantly traveling toward your goal and will never be overly disturbed or broken. Yissachar, the Tribe devoted to Torah study, "bowed his shoulders to bear" -- i.e., by training himself to bear any difficulties, he was able to reach the highest level of peace of mind in all situations.
Over the last 13 weeks, we’ve explored the book of Genesis week by week, parsha by parsha. As the book of Genesis draws to a close with Vayahei, let’s take a moment to zoom out and look at the various pieces of Genesis as part of a larger story.
In the beginning of Genesis, God sets Abraham up to become a model nation. Abraham is chosen to represent God and God’s values, with the hope of spreading them around the world. As the book unfolds we meet his sons Isaac and Jacob who struggle to model these values and continue their father’s legacy. The book that starts with the righteousness of Abraham and the kindness of Isaac and Rebecca unravels-- and by the end of Genesis, things seem to have fallen apart. We see deception after deception. What happened to God’s chosen people, what happened to the family that was supposed to model justice and kindness to the rest of the world?
Because the Jacob and Joseph stories, which we have been entrenched in for the last 6 weeks, are riddled with deception, it’s easy to forget that they are part of a larger story. They are part of a larger family charged with a divine mission to become a model nation. It’s even harder to remember that this model family is really plan C- after Plan A and Plan B fail in the first two parshiot of Genesis. Plan A is just a flash in the pan, covering the first 3 chapters of Genesis. The Torah begins with the creation of the universe culminating in the creation of mankind. God lovingly places humanity in a special garden - a place in which humanity and God could really live together. Plan A is the ideal world, it’s paradise.
Paradise, however is contingent on following just one rule: This whole garden is yours to eat from, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Staying away from that tree affirms that humanity understands that God is the objective decider of good and evil. When Adam and Eve eat from the tree we learn that our perspective of good is really subjective and tainted by our desires.
Is our idea of good tainted by our desires – what does this mean?
God had wanted humanity to enjoy the world, but enjoy it in the context of a relationship with Him. Once humanity attempts to determine good and evil for themselves, they betray this special relationship with God and are kicked out of the garden. The distance between humankind and God only gets worse in the next generation when Cain takes good and evil into his own hands, and ends the life of another human... his brother….moving humanity farther away from God. The book of Genesis opens with humanity’s two great sins – one against God, and one against one another.
Eventually, humanity drifts so far away, that God regrets having made the world, and chooses to recreate it with a flood, God decided to begin anew - Plan B. In this new world God still wants a relationship with people now God generously allows them to learn from their mistakes. God now accepts and embraces humankind’s humanity--instead of punishing them for it. This new relationship is paradoxical: instead of holding on tighter, God lets go and lets humanity find its way back to Him.
Plan B doesn’t work out either.
The Tower of Babel shows us that humanity continues to focus solely on themselves, let’s make our own name great. Humanity completely removes God from the picture. The plan that was supposed to bring humanity closer to God ultimately creates more distance.
Finally Plan C is hatched-- creating a model nation… a people that would embody God’s values and model them to the rest of the world. God chooses Abraham to model a relationship with Him. He is a master of kindness, and learns that his role as a righteous person is to be an influencer. Though he is incredibly close with God, we learn in the Sodom narrative that Abraham is expected to invite others into that intimate relationship. Over and over again we hear about how through Abraham and the nation that he founds, blessing will reach the entire world.
As amazing as Abraham is-- he and Sarah can’t become a nation by themselves. In order to be a model nation he needs others to continue the legacy after him. Enter Isaac and Rebecca. In Chayei Sarah we meet Rebecca and see her act with kindness ---in a place devoid of good values making her the perfect person to continue Abraham’s legacy. In Toldot, we see that after a few struggles Isaac learns from the past and becomes the perfect progenitor of his father’s mission. Eventually, Isaac and Rebecca need the legacy to continue to the next generation, so that legacy can grow into that model nation- which brings us to their son Jacob. Jacob’s story is much...much more complicated. Jacob’s story is riddled with deception, from stealing the birthright to tricking Lavan, and we see that his kids continue THIS legacy - deception.
What happened? Everything seemed to be working out so nicely? If the Bible wanted to make us feel bad, it would be a perfect story of perfect people with perfect families and perfect lives. But instead, the Torah chooses to show us the struggle of morality. This family who is meant to model morality ends up picking favorites and selling a brother into slavery? Though it feels like we are entrenched in deception, Genesis doesn’t end with deception, it ends with reconciliation. Joseph himself so beautifully articulates this at the end of the parsha, closing the book of Genesis. After the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers worry that he will finally seek revenge for selling him into slavery. They throw themselves at Joseph’s mercy and offer themselves as slaves. Joseph breaks down and cries, he finally responds: Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you - For am I to play God?
This is a much bigger reconciliation. It is the reconciliation of Cain killing his brother- playing God and deciding right and wrong. It is the reconciliation of the tower of Babel, where humanity forgot that God is the ultimate name, the ultimate controller of the world. And it is reconciliation for the Garden of Eden, for Adam and Eve’s fateful mistake of thinking they decide good and evil. And that theme--- of humans trying to determine good and evil continues to play out in Bereishit through favouritism. When someone feels that they are unfavoured, that they deserve more than they are getting, in reality they are deciding what is just and unjust, what is good and what is evil. Though Joseph gets caught up in this favouritism, he is able end to the cycle and step outside his own view of right and wrong. Joseph throws it back to God. “I don’t make these choices, to take vengeance, to determine what is right and what is wrong.”
This is what the book is about, this is what it means to Jacob who struggled with God, and with people, and prevailed. It’s only once we’ve achieved this on a small scale that we are ready to take on this challenge on a national scale.
Joseph’s statement is the culmination of a book-long struggle, the book that began with the tension of humans determining good and evil ends with another question of good and evil, only this time, we get it right. What does Joseph do? He rewards his brothers.
Cain asked - Am I my brother’s keeper? Joseph tells us YES, we are our brother’s keepers! He straightens things out with his brothers-- they are the fix in a long chain of deceit, error, and struggle. Joseph and his brothers show us that the only way to heal, to mend, to grow, is to realize that relationships, families, are not about a game of right and wrong. God alone is the decider of good and evil. Our job is not to determine morality, but to follow God’s map for morality. Be kind to one another. Be a positive impact on the world.
Many people ask the question “Why is Jacob one of the Patriarchs? What did he do to deserve this distinction?”
Jacob, the third patriarch is far too complex a figure for us to discuss in this brief guide. At the end of his life, Jacob does not sound like a happy man. “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” He dies a stranger in a stranger land. At the end of his life, he has to live off the kindness of his son. He must rely on Joseph’s promise that he will in fact be properly buried. Considering how much trickery Jacob had seen in his life time, we can only wonder how confident he was that he would in fact be buried in the manner promised. So what is Jacob’s merit? What makes him unique? Abraham was the originator, the founding father. Isaac was the figure of continuity. He was the one who kept Abraham’s vision alive and passed it along to the next generation. But Jacob was the one who transmitted the tradition to an entire family. Abraham kept Isaac but lost Ishmael. Isaac kept Jacob but lost Esau. Jacob did not lose anybody. He transmitted the vision of God that he had seen on the way to Paddan, on the way back from Paddan and on his way into to Egypt to all twelve of his sons and their sons and the sons of their sons. However imperfect each of his sons may have been, they were all still sons of Jacob, they were still part of the house of Israel. This concept of the whole House of Israel is an essential element of Judaism. Jacob took us from being the Jewish person to being the Jewish people and for that alone he earns a place as a Patriarch.
So in that vein, why isn’t Joseph a Patriarch?
Once again, we are dealing with a figure far too complex to be summarized in a mere guide. Joseph is described as a Tzadik, a righteous man. One reason for this appellation was his rejection of Potiphar’s wife. In its own right, his behavior was meritorious. But when his behavior is compared with that of Rueben and Bilha or Judah and Tamar, Joseph’s ability to control his appetites really does set him way above his contemporaries. Joseph is a person capable of growth and maturation; a person capable of learning from his past mistakes. He learns to be loving, loyal and forgiving. Joseph is a person who engenders trust. Whether it is Potiphar, the head jailer or Pharaoh himself, people immediately entrust him with their affairs and leave him to take care of everything. So why isn’t he a Patriarch? Maybe it is because he is a dreamer. God spoke directly to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. But he did not speak to Joseph. Instead Joseph dreamed dreams and listened to the dreams of others. Using his intuition, he looked for the divine message in the world of hazy, half-formed images. Furthermore, unlike his three famous forefathers, Joseph was not a singular recipient of a birthright. He was one of twelve recipients of Jacob’s blessings. The unique relationship was with the children of Israel, not the child of Israel. Last but not least, from a very traditional point of view, Joseph was not a Patriarch because God did not designate him as one. Have no doubt about Joseph’s merit. Remember, according to some, there are two Messiahs. One is the Messiah of the House of David and the other is the Messiah of the House of Joseph.
Some important themes:
In this week’s Torah portion Jacob and Joseph die. Each of these great, powerful men was dependent on those who remain behind to see to it that they were buried in a proper manner. The Talmud picks up this theme when it lists “escorting the dead” as one of the ten activities in which a person should engage while awaiting the end of days. (The list includes a wide variety of activities ranging from performing acts of life kindness to providing for a bride’s dowry to study). This list is recited daily in the introductory prayers of the morning service. In other words, the obligation of the living to the dead was considered important enough that we not only study about it, but we are reminded of it every day. Taking care of the dead is the ultimate mitzvah since the one performing the act can expect no reward from the recipient. And the one receiving the benefit cannot say thank you. This is proof positive that the reward for performing the mitzvah is the performance of the mitzvah.
It is in this parsha that the practice of Shiva emerges. - “…And he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father.” Joseph’s mourning for his father foreshadows the sitting of Shiva - the seven days of mourning observed following the burial of a Jew.
When Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan we are seeing the first example of the ultimate act of “true kindness,” the burial of the dead. In Judaism, chesed v’emet (true kindness) is a mitzvah performed without the expectation of thanks or reward. Burial of the dead is the ultimate form of true kindness since the dead cannot reward the living.
Shabbat Blessing - It is customary for parents to bless their children at home on Friday evening usually before the singing of Shalom Aleichem. The blessing for sons begins with the words, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” These words refer to the blessing that Jacob conferred on his two grandsons, the sons of Joseph. They were a source of pride because they were able to maintain their Jewish identity despite having been born in Egypt and raised among Egyptians. According to Jewish tradition, Jacob wanted future generations of Jewish parents to utter this benediction over their children. The blessing for girls invokes the names of the four matriarchs. The body of the benediction is the same for all children regardless of sex. Rabbi Feivell Strauss provided a lesson in how parents can keep this custom alive when children grow up and leave home. He told the story of a couple in Jerusalem who go to the part of the dining room closest to the direction where their adult children are living and recite the benediction. In describing this Rabbi Strauss teaches us that instead of “discarding” customs and practices, we should look for new ways to give them meaning as our circumstances change. Shema - Between the first line of the Shema (Hear O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One) and the V’ahavta, we recite Baruch Shem kvod malchuto l’olam va-ed (Blessed is the name of His Glorious majesty forever and ever). Among traditional Jews, these words are uttered softly, almost silently. One of the reasons given for the muted utterance of the words comes from the deathbed scene of Jacob. Jacob’s sons affirmed their belief in Adonai. When they said, “Hear O Israel…” they were actually addressing the statement to Jacob/Israel. Jacob uttered these words in the whisper of a dying man relieved that his sons would keep the faith. We utter them sotto voce, in the manner of Jacob. Also, unlike the rest of the Shema, these words do not come from Moses and are not found in the Torah. So they are recited in a different manner to emphasize that they have a different origin. Burial - According to Rashi, Jacob insisted on being buried in Canaan for at least two reasons. First, Jacob considered the Promised Land to be the holiest spot on earth. Secondly, he knew that the Egyptians had a tendency to deify the dead and he did not want become an idol. In keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews often make arrangements to be buried in Israel. Others will have some dirt from Eretz Yisrael placed in their coffin. Also, in keeping with the example of Jacob, Jews have gone to great length to avoid the deification of our leaders. The most striking example of this is the fate of Moshe - he dies alone and is buried in an unmarked grave.