Parshat Vayechi    Genesis 47:28-50:26                                    
Summary

Vayechi is the last Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. In English, the name means “and he lived …” and refers to Jacob’s having lived in Egypt for 17 years. Jacob is now old, ill, and nearly blind. Sensing that he is about to die, he insists that Joseph promise to bury him in Canaan, the place of his birth. And before dying, Jacob also wants to bless his children, a common practice among the patriarchs. Theparasha records two sets of blessings. The first blessings went to his grandchildren – Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim – whom the old man had adopted as his own. (He did this as a kind of compensation for the children he might have had with his favourite wife, Rachel, had she lived.) Joseph brought the boys and had them kneel before their grandfather. But in blessing them Jacob crossed his arms, and touched the head of the older grandson with his left hand, and the head of the younger with his right hand. Since the right hand was the side of power, this would bestow the more powerful blessing on the younger brother, something that was never done in ancient times. When Joseph tried to reverse Jacob’s arms – so that Menasheh would get the primary blessing – Jacob resisted and explained that Ephraim would father a larger people than would his older brother.

After finishing with his grandsons, Jacob called his twelve sons to his bedside. He blessed each of them by describing his character (in the cases of Levi and Shimon in very unflattering terms!) and by foretelling his future. In particular, he predicted that Judah would rule over the others. (Indeed, Judah was to be the ancestor of King David.) Jacob then directed his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron, the gravesite of his parents and grandparents. Accordingly, after his death, even though the brothers prepared their father’s body for burial by embalming it in the Egyptian way, Joseph obtained Pharaoh’s permission to bury him in Canaan. A great Egyptian funeral procession accompanied the body from Egypt to Canaan, where Jacob was laid to rest.

After observing a week of shiva, Joseph and his brothers returned to Egypt. The brothers were concerned that now that their father was dead, Joseph would finally seek revenge for what they had done to him years before when they threw him in a pit to die. So they sent Joseph a message informing him that their father’s final instructions were for Joseph to forgive his brothers. Joseph assured his siblings that they had nothing to fear: Although they may have intended to harm him years before, it was by God’s will that their actions turned out for good. Like his father, Joseph made his brothers promise that after his death – when God would ultimately make good on the promise to bring them up from Egypt to the Land of Israel – the Israelites would carry his bones back with them. The parasha and the book of Genesis end with a report of Joseph’s death at the age of 110. Unlike Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph was buried in a coffin, following the Egyptian custom.

Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek.

Commentary

  • Did you know that at the completion of the public reading of each book of Torah, the congregation rises and says aloud “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!” Meaning “Be strong, be strong, and let us
    strengthen one another” (to continue the reading of the Torah).
     

  • In Parshat Miketz we learned that Joseph was second only to Pharaoh in Egypt. Why then, in this week’s portion, did he need (or feel that he needed) to ask permission from Pharaoh to go and bury his father in Canaan? What does this suggest about the relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh? Although Pharaoh did allow Joseph to go, a large group of Egyptian officials accompanied Joseph, his brothers, and their families on their journey. What role(s) do you think Pharaoh’s dignitaries, officials, horsemen and chariots played? Was it to honour Jacob, to protect Joseph and his family from the Canaanites, or possibly from Esau and his men? What other function might they have been serving? Writing at the time of the expulsion of our people from Spain (in 1492), Abarbanel suggest that generosity was not Pharaoh’s motive but rather he was concerned that once out of Egypt the Israelites would choose not to return.
     

  • There is an old story that traces the Sh’ma, arguably the most central Jewish prayer, to Jacob’s deathbed. According to the legend, Jacob let his children know his doubts and fears about whether
    they would continue in his path. They answered him: Sh’ma, Yisrael – “Listen, Israel”, addressing Jacob by his God-given name – “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We will carry on your vision, they say. And in the process, the first “ungolden” generation writes the words that have unified Jews ever since.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Both Jacob and Joseph die in this parasha yet the portion is given the title “and he lived.” As Jews, we honour and remember Jacob and Joseph, and all those who have died, by chronicling and recalling their deeds and accomplishments. In this way, those who have died continue to live. What special memories do you have of friends and family members who have died? What special blessings did they transmit to you and how did their lives influence yours?
     

  2. When Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob to be blessed, the old man asked, “Who are these?” The Midrash explains that he saw the boys dressed as Egyptians and speaking Egyptian; they didn’t look “Jewish” to him. What does it mean to “look” Jewish. Do you look Jewish? Do you speak a Jewish language? In what ways do you see yourself as a Jew? In what ways do others see you as a Jew? What connects you to Judaism?What will keep your children connected?
     

  3. Although he had lived comfortably in Egypt for many years, Jacob was adamant about his desire to be buried in Canaan. Why are Jacob and Joseph so insistent about not being buried in Egypt?
     

  4. It is evident that Joseph’s brothers made up Jacob’s final instructions to Joseph about forgiving them for having left Joseph in a pit. Were the brothers right to be afraid? Given their fear, did they do the right thing? How else might they have brought about peace in the family? Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught; “Great is peace, for even our ancestors resorted to fabrication in order to make peace between Joseph and themselves” (Genesis Rabbah 10:8). The Talmud quotes Rabbi Ile’a as saying: “A person may tell a white lie for the sake of peace” (Yevamot 65b). Who is the peace-maker in your family? Have you ever lied for the sake of peace? What was the lie and why did you say it? Did the lie work? Why or why not?
     

  5. Joseph’s position in Pharaoh’s court enabled him to provide food and a safe haven for his entire extended family during the regional famine. In fact, the area where he had his family settle, Goshen, was the choicest and most fertile area of the country. From all outward appearances it seemed that life was very good for the Israelites in Egypt. Why might the Pharaoh have been worried that the Israelites would consider not returning to Egypt after they had buried Jacob in Canaan? What does someone – a whole people or an individual family – need to feel at home? Have you or your family ever felt like strangers or had the experience of being foreign?