This week’s portion, with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, marks the end of a family saga and of an era. This is also Jacob’s swansong, the end of a long, mostly unhappy life of the Bible’s main tragic hero. The portion opens by citing Jacob’s age at his death: he dies at 147. But, as he previously told Pharaoh when he arrived in Egypt 17 years earlier, “few and bad were the years of my life.” It’s the quality, Jacob reminds us, not the quantity.
Indeed, it is his final years spent in Egypt which are likely Jacob’s happiest. His youth was consumed with his competition with his brother Esau; the prime of his adulthood was spent working for his treacherous father-in-law Laban; and when he moves back to the Land of Israel he is eclipsed by his children and mostly grieves, first for his favorite wife Rachel who dies in childbirth, and then for his favorite son Joseph, who he believes was eaten by a wild beast. Only at the end, in Egypt, is Jacob finally at peace, comforted by being reunited with Joseph: “Let me die now, for I have seen your face – for you are still alive.” For his other children, it seems he cares little.
With Jacob on his deathbed, Joseph brings his two sons to be blessed. And in a situation reminiscent of when Jacob came to Isaac to steal his brother’s blessing, “Israel’s eyes were heavy from old age; he could not see.” But, old and blind, Jacob is nobody’s fool. In an act of (poetic) justice, Jacob doesn’t put his right hand on the elder of Joseph’s sons – he deliberately puts in on the younger. When Joseph tries to correct his father, Jacob “refuses. I know, my son, I know. He too will be a nation and he too will grow. But his younger brother will grow greater than him.” Indeed Jacob does know: on his deathbed, he is still trying to shatter the paradigm with which he struggled with since the womb – that the first(born) is best.
There is perhaps a larger message that comes to symbolize much of what Jacob stands for: nothing is predestined or preordained. First doesn’t necessarily mean best. Each person will succeed – and be blessed – based on his or her qualities and capacities, not based on the random order of birth. (In this respect, Jacob serves as the prototype of the self-made man. You can come alone and penniless to a strange country and leave with a full household and with great wealth – as he did with Laban, and as Jews have done for generations till the present day.) But in the context of a traditional society, this concept of nothing preordained and let the best man win is somewhat revolutionary. But Jacob fights this fight time and again.
Ironically, if Jacob lived life mostly in despair, in death he is treated like royalty. After being mummified, “Egypt mourned him for 70 days.” Then, having received permission from Pharaoh to bury Jacob in the Land of Israel, “Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt. And all the house of Joseph, and his brethren, and his father’s house… a very large encampment.” It’s hard to say if Jacob would have been impressed with his funeral or for the most part unmoved by it. Either way, the pomp and circumstance of his funeral stands in stark contrast to a life in which it seems Jacob often feels alone.
As he is about to leave for Egypt, God speaks to Jacob for the last time in the Bible story: “Do not fear going down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt and I will surely bring you up [from there].”
These are very reassuring, almost tender, words. God promises to accompany Jacob. It is as if God “doesn’t have the heart” to see him go there alone. Not that Jacob is actually going to Egypt alone – he is accompanied by his whole family and is he about to be reunited with Joseph.
Yet, it is almost as if Jacob is alone – as alone and as needing of reassurance and God’s accompaniment as when God first speaks to him, when he is escaping his brother Esau on his way to Laban, penniless and homeless. In that first encounter God says to Jacob: “I am with you and I will watch over you wherever you will go and I will return you to this land.”
It seems little has changed in the ensuing decades. God still feels obliged to offer – and it seems like Jacob still needs – His companionship and compassion.
For Jacob, for whom life is one long, lonely struggle – of “few and bad” years – God can’t but offer to be there with him.