Erica Brown

Jacob’s Unfinished Business

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 4:12 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12
Shabbat ends: 5:16 p.m.


In this week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, Jacob lies on his deathbed, blessing his sons with predictive statements about their futures. When Joseph comes near, the elderly patriarch “summoned his strength” to leave him with one last message. What does this dying man, in his last moments, behest to his most beloved son?

Jacob tells Joseph that his two sons will be counted as Jacob’s own children. Practically, this meant that Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Manasheh, would inherit property in the Land of Israel as two of the Twelve Tribes. The man who favored Joseph all of his life, now shows special favoritism to Joseph’s sons. Why he does this, knowing all the past trouble that envy caused in the family, is explained by Jacob in a strange way: “I [do this because] when I was returning from Padan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat — now Bethlehem” [Genesis 48:7].

To understand the enigma of this explanation, we must turn to the narrative of Rachel’s death in Genesis 35. There, an angel tells Jacob to move his household to Beth-El. God revealed himself to Jacob upon his arrival and changed Jacob’s name to Israel, commanding him, despite Jacob’s already large family, to be “fruitful and multiply, for a nation, an assembly of nations, shall descend from you.”

Jacob builds an alter at the site of the revelation and prepares his family to move on. On the road, Rachel, heavy with child, goes into labor outside of Efrat. She breathes her last breath as she names her second son. Thus, the text says, “Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat — now Bethlehem.” Jacob makes a pillar to mark her grave and then moved on to pitch his tent elsewhere.

Commentators are troubled by Jacob’s actions. Why did he not take Rachel to Hebron — where we ironically find him at the end of chapter 35 — and bury her like the other matriarchs? He was not far away. Instead Jacob himself will spend his eternal life beside Leah, the woman he never really loved. This seems a fitting and tragic end for a relationship that rings with unsatisfied longing: Jacob pined for Rachel, worked for her and was given Leah instead. Although he marries Rachel in the end, it required fourteen years of labor. Rachel longed for children and they came but only with great difficulty. Ultimately, she paid for her longing with her very life. Even in death, Rachel remains at the roadside beside a simple marker signifying all of the unfinished business of her death.

When Jacob calls for Joseph, he, too, must clean up the unfinished messiness of life before he leaves this world for the next. He returns to the Genesis 35 of his memory and shares this drama with his son, leaving Joseph two important tasks. Jacob understood from God that he was to have more children. He naturally assumed that Rachel was to be their mother until Rachel died giving birth. There will be one more son in Jacob’s family but he will not have any more children through his three remaining wives. Why did he not follow God’s command and have more children through Leah or Bilhah or Zilpah?

One commentator suggests that Jacob is confessing to Joseph that he did not bury Rachel properly. He was on the move and was, in the exegete’s words, “…so weighed down by my trouble and mourning that I lacked the strength to go to the cemetery in Bethlehem and, without doubt, from then on there was a hole in my heart … and I lacked strength to have more children.” Rachel’s death left Jacob winded. He did not even have the emotional fortitude to bury her. Now, many years later, he experiences sadness and guilt. He neither obeyed God’s command to have additional children nor buried his favorite wife with the dignity she deserved.

With his explanation he bequeaths two obligations on Joseph. The first he states outright. Joseph, the child who most mirrors Jacob, will continue Jacob’s line. Jacob will metaphorically adopt Joseph’s first two sons and include them as his own to finally fill God’s mandate. The other demand can only be read between the lines. Jacob, in apologizing for the disservice done to Joseph’s mother, pleads with Joseph to treat him differently. He wants his own bones to be brought to Hebron, and although Egypt is farther away, he wants Joseph to bury him in the land of Israel. In the words of Rashi, “I am burdening you with my burial in the land of Canaan even though I did not do this for your mother…”

Both of Jacob’s requests revolve around Rachel and both — the burial and the continuity of the next generation — are now dependent on the blessed child of their special union. Joseph must and does take care of Jacob’s unfinished business. n

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).