Yaakov’s life was filled with tragedy and insecurity. His faith was tested and stretched to its limits. When his sons returned from Egypt with news that Yaakov’s long-mourned son, Yosef, was not only still alive but had been appointed by Pharoah to rule over Egypt during the long years of famine; this news tested his very sense of reality. Yaakov acceded with reticence to Yosef’s request to descend with his family to Egypt, but he still needed God’s reassurance that this departure from Eretz Canaan was part of the divine plan. Before his departure, Yaakov offered up a sacrifice to God in Beersheva, and there, God granted him the desired affirmation:
I Myself (God) will go down with you to Egypt and I Myself will surely also bring you up (a’alekha gam alo) as well. And Yosef shall lay his hands upon your eyes (yashit yadav al einekha). (Genesis 46:4)
With these words, God promised Yosef that He would be with him even when he departed the Promised Land and guaranteed him that, in the future, He would return him back home.
The meaning of the second promise, however, is less clear. What was Yosef’s role in this promise?
On this question, the medieval commentators are divided. While most modern commentators follow the interpretation of Rav Saadya Gaon (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, Hizkuni), who held that God promised Yaakov that Yosef would be with his father when he died to close his eyes as was the custom at the time.
Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, who is normally considered a pshat or plain meaning interpreter, veers somewhat from this course on this question: “[Yosef] will put his hands to your matters (inyanekha) and your needs, he will try to do them…” (See also Bechor Shor, Radak, Sforno.)
Rabbi Yitzhak, an Eretz Yisraeli sages from the period of the Talmud, gives Yosef an even more significant role. He read the verse from the Torah as a conditional sentence:
Rabbi Haggai in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak said: [God’s providential care for Yaakov would only be realized only] on account of Yosef’s laying his hands on Yaakov’s eyes, [namely, taking care of Yaakov’s affairs]. (Adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 94:6, Theodore-Albeck ed. p. 1177)
In true Hasidic fashion, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb Alter, second Gerer Rebbe, finds an eternal religious message in this rabbinic midrash:
It is a promise for the generations that ‘on account of Yosef’s laying hands on Yaakov’s eyes’, every trouble faced by a Jew (literally: ‘ish Yisrael – every person of Yisrael – the other name for Yaakov) will only for the good and will ultimately become an advantage, for it is written: ‘also bring you up’ – more than when you went down. On account of ‘Yosef shall lay his hands… – the meaning of “einkha – [literally], your eyes” is “perspective” – that one needs to take care that one should not be overcome by one’s [negative] sense or perspective without taking notice of the awe [inspiration] of God to remember that everything small or large comes from the life force of God blessed be He. And if one clings to the divine point (spark) – the source of life, one’s troubles will turn to good.” (adapted from Sfat Emet Vayigash 5632, Or Etzion ed. pp. 375-6)
For the Sfat Emet, Yosef’s role in Yaakov’s life is a constant reminder to each of us to keep in mind that our perspective on life is important. We need to know that God is always with us and will enable us to turn our situations around and ultimately make them good.