Five Rashis a Week, Vayechi: Two Sides to Ya’akov’s Life

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

One of the ways depression feeds on itself is by the depressed person failing to see anything but the negatives. In both last week’s parsha and this one, Ya’akov has ample room to see the negative (and is clear about that negative). The Rashis I found this week show some of that, but also offer a counterbalance, places where Ya’akov articulates his awareness (and gives us our awareness) of the positives of his life.

Measuring Our Lives By Our Fathers’

In 47;29, Rashi asserts that Scripture uses the words ויקרבו ימי…למות, someone’s days came near to his death, to indicate that he did not live as long as his father. It’s true of Ya’akov, who lived 147 years as compared to Yitzchak’s 180, and it’s true of King David (in I Melachim 2;1), who lived only seventy years, where tradition thought his father Yishai lived 400 years.

Rashi doesn’t mention Moshe Rabbenu, to whom Hashem says, in Devarim 31;14, your days are coming close to death, therefore bring Yehoshu’a to the Tent of Meeting, to invest him with the Divine Spirit he’ll need to lead the people.

One important difference is that when Ya’akov and David near death, they call in their sons, to instruct them about what to do after they’re gone, whereas Moshe calls in Yehoshu’a. While students are thought of as akin to children, the comment about living as long as one’s father seems to me to perhaps explain Rashi’s leaving Moshe out—Rashi’s making a point about father/son legacies.

When death approaches, it’s time to ensure the next generation knows how to further the legacy. That’s true for all parents; why would Tanach make a point of it particularly for those who are not going to live as long as their fathers?

Rashi doesn’t say, but it seems to me a comment on the expectation that sons will build further that which their fathers did.  If the father spent x years tending God’s garden, the assumption is the son will have that long, or longer. When it turns out not to be true, the son is forced to recognize early that it’s time for the next generation to take up the family efforts, and to be sure, earlier than he ordinarily would have, to express that legacy to the next generation explicitly enough that they are ready to undertake their role.

Avoiding Impoverished Hopes

48;21 has Ya’akov telling Yosef he had not expected or thought to see him again, and now he had seen Yosef’s descendants. The word commonly translated as expected is פללתי, a verb whose root is more commonly known from the verb for prayer. Rashi picks up on that connection, I think, interpreting Ya’akov’s statement to mean “I did not allow myself to think that I might see your face again.”

Ya’akov had lost all hope of seeing Yosef, Rashi is telling us, and now realizes how misplaced his despair was.  Since the verb does relate to prayer, it suggests to me that we sometimes also despair too easily, and cease praying for that which we cannot imagine Hashem will give us.  Ya’akov could not believe he would see Yosef again, but he did. What do we not believe could possibly happen, and therefore neglect/fail to continue to seek?

Ya’akov waits twenty painful years for it to come to fruition, but it does. It doesn’t always, and there are no guarantees, but Rashi’s reading of Ya’akov’s words tell me that we can also make the mistake of losing our dreams, or not dreaming big enough. When Hashem might have waiting for us that which we didn’t dare imagine or hope.

Seeing the Bounty

In 49;26, Ya’akov blesses Yosef with the hope that he would receive the blessings given to Ya’akov. He introduces that by saying that those blessings were greater than his ancestors’. Rashi explains that Hashem had told Ya’akov (28;14) that his descendants would spread in all directions, without limiting it. Avraham and Yitzchak had been told they would get the entirety of the Land of Israel, as far as they could see, but that was it.

I was struck by this and the previous comment because they contrast with Ya’akov’s words to Par’oh, 47;9, that his years had been מעט ורעים, few and bad. Especially given the first Rashi we saw, with Ya’akov “failing” to reach his father’s life-span, we might read him as seeing only what had gone wrong in his life. These are a corrective, showing that he was aware of both the good and the bad, the bounty and the suffering, the successes and the failures in his life, not one or the other.

Ya’akov Didn’t Die

49;33 says that Ya’akov finished what he had to say to his sons, pulled his legs onto the bed, expired, and was gathered to his forefathers. The verse’s refraining from saying he died led R. Yochanan (Ta’anit 5b) to say that he in fact never did.

Rashi to Ta’anit takes that fairly literally, that he was embalmed because he appeared to be dead to the embalmers, but in fact was alive (he does not explain how that worked). Rashi is focused on the embalming because in the Gemara R. Nachman challenges R. Yitzchak, who had quoted R. Yochanan’s idea that Ya’akov hadn’t died, by wondering what the eulogies and embalming were for, if he wasn’t dead? Was it for naught?

  1. Yitzchak’s answer suggests we don’t have to be as literal as Rashi. He says the idea of Ya’akov’s not having died comes from Yirmiyahu 30;10, where Hashem encourages Ya’akov and Yisrael not to fear, because Hashem will redeem them. Taking the first as a reference to the Patriarch and the second as a reference to the nation, R. Yitzchak says that just as the nation would be alive when the redemption happens, so too the Patriarch.

If so, the definition of “alive” doesn’t have to be limited to the physical. The people who heard Yirmiyahu’s prophecy did not live to see the redemption; what will live until then is the nation as a conceptual entity, even as its specific members change every generation. Ya’akov might be parallel to that, in the sense that his legacy was the nation, in a way the other Avot’s wasn’t—they produced the next Patriarch, but Ya’akov produced the nation.

Just as the one doesn’t die, neither does the other. As long as there’s a Yisrael, there’s a Ya’akov.

Yosef Knowing His Limits

After Ya’akov’s passing, the brothers fear how Yosef will treat them. Dismissing the possibility that he’d do them ill, 50;19, Yosef poses the rhetorical question כי התחת אלוקים אני, am I in the place of God? To me, the easiest way to read that is that Yosef is saying it’s not his place to judge them, since the actions they had meant nefariously had been used by God to produce the necessary and important outcome.

Rashi takes it differently, reading Yosef’s comments as “could I do ill to you if I wanted to, when we all saw that you wanted to do me ill and Hashem turned it into something good?” It is, for Rashi, Yosef’s recognizing the limits of his abilities, Hashem’s power to foil his plans.

He might indeed have wished them ill, might have felt comfortable judging them. He just knew it wasn’t within his abilities to do that which Hashem didn’t want him to, and mistreating his brothers was a course of action he was confident Hashem didn’t want.

If we work that back into the other comments we’ve seen this time, that could be because Ya’akov Avinu, despite not reaching the physical life-span of his father, in many ways surpassed him. He saw outcomes he never would have dared hope, received a promise of future success that was greater than that given his fathers, saw the birth of a nation that would last forever, always linked to his name. Yosef having been blessed by his father to be a main continuer of that legacy, he knew his role was to help that nation move forward successfully, even if that meant relinquishing his justifiable anger over how he’d been treated.

And that’s what he did.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.