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David Curwin
David Curwin

Between Vayigash and Vayechi

Rashi, in his commentary to the first verse of Vayechi, points out that this is an unusual parasha. In fact, it is unique in the entire Torah. All the other parashot have nine spaces between the preceding parasha and the new one. However, there is no such gap between Vayigash and Vayechi, making this a “closed” parasha. Rashi explains the reason for this unusual layout as symbolizing either the closing of the eyes and hearts of Israel after Jacob’s death, or that the vision of the end of exile was closed to Jacob on his deathbed.

Rashbam, on the following verse (Bereshit 47:29) takes a different approach from his grandfather Rashi. He points out that Bereshit 47:27 (the end of Vayigash) and Bereshit 47:28 (the opening of Vayechi) are narratively linked, and should be part of the same story:

(27) Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly.

(28) Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.

So there would be no reason to place the traditional spaces between them.

If so, why doesn’t Vayechi start with verse 27? According to Rashbam, “The [Jewish] communities were not willing to conclude the reading of the weekly portion [of Vayigash] with the words, ‘the land belonged permanently to Pharaoh’ (Bereshit 47:20) and instead ended it with ‘Thus Israel settled’ (Bereshit 47:27)”

The custom of not ending a biblical reading on a bad note is well established. But Rashbam’s comment deserves further scrutiny. It’s noteworthy that he doesn’t actually say that the problematic words were in Bereshit 47:26 (“only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s”) but a few verses earlier – Bereshit 47:20, which says that all the land belonged to Pharaoh. Why jump to that earlier verse?

And in any case, why is verse 20 so problematic? Chapter 47 describes how Joseph nationalized the lands of the Egyptians for Pharaoh. But while the Egyptians became slaves to Pharaoh, the children of Israel were free and prospered!

I think what Rashbam is hinting to here, by highlighting the problematic nature of verse 20, is that Joseph’s plan for turning the citizens of Egypt into slaves may have had short term benefits for Israel (and Joseph’s regime), it sent into motion the mechanism that would ultimately enslave the people of Israel themselves.

The short term benefits of that policy did not outweigh the long term tragedy to come. And so the ending verses of chapter 47, particularly verse 20, were the beginning of the painful Egyptian servitude. And in that sense, Rashbam was not actually that far apart from the opinion of his grandfather Rashi.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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