And so we come to the last parsha of Bereishit, beautifully moving and emotionally dramatic. For the past few weeks we have been following the troubled relationship between Yosef and his brothers. Finally, this week, we find Yaakov and his family, and all twelve of his sons, reunited in the land of Egypt.
The story of Yosef and his brothers finally concludes after the death of Yaakov. The brothers, worried Yosef might now have his revenge, send him a message: “your father commanded, before he died: ‘so you shall say to Yosef, please now forgive the offense of your brothers, who treated you badly, and their sins.’ So now please forgive the sins of the servants of the G-d of your father.” (Bereishit, 50:16-17). Rashi, quoting the Bereishit Rabbah and Yevamot 65b, comments that Yaakov never commanded such a thing, but one is allowed to change their words for the sake of peace (Rashi, Bereishit, 50:16). Yosef cries when he hears this message; he thought he had been fully reconciled with his brothers, only now does he realise they thought he was still angry with them. Finally, the story of Yosef and his brothers is resolved.
The theme of unity between brothers is clear in this week’s parsha when Yaakov blesses Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Although Menashe is older than Ephraim, Yaakov crosses his hands over so that his right hand is on Ephraim’s head. When Yosef objects, Yaakov explains “He too shall become a great people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he” (Bereishit, 48:19). Despite this glaring source of potential enmity between Menashe and Ephraim, nothing more is said of it. And one of the reasons we bless our sons on Friday night to be like these two brothers is because they were the first two brothers in our history not to fight with each other. There was tension between Yitzchak and Yishmael, between Yaakov and Eisav, between Yosef and his brothers. But not between Menashe and Ephraim. Each knew that one needed to be stronger and bigger than the other. But each knew that the other had their own unique role, each knew the other was important.
This is, in fact, the final message Yaakov gives to his sons. Although Yaakov dies in this week’s sedra, it is called Vayechi – “and he lived”. If the process of the avot, from Avraham until now, has been a microcosm of the history of the Jewish people – applying the logic of “maaseh avot siman lebanim” – this makes perfect sense. The end of the lives of the avot reflects the end of the history of the Jewish people – namely, Moshiach. The Gemarah states “Yaakov didn’t die” (Taanit 5b), because he symbolises Moshiach, the eternal and everlasting final stage of Jewish history. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the pesukim tell us that, before he died, Yaakov told his sons “gather together and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days” (Bereishit, 49:1).
But Yaakov does not tell them; he goes on in the following pesukim to bless his sons. What happened?
The Gemarah explains that the Shechina left Yaakov as he was about to reveal the time Moshiach would come, and so he could not tell his sons (Pesachim 56a). However, another explanation can be offered. The blessings Yaakov gives his sons are what will happen at the end of days. How? Each tribe received a different bracha from their father. A bracha specific to them and their unique role in this world. It is precisely when each one of the Bnei Yisrael understand their role and its importance – within the context of the nation – that Moshiach can come. Only when this level is reached, when we realise that we are each individuals with our own special roles, but when we also realise that every other individual and their special role is just as important, that the Jewish people can become unified and we can merit redemption.
This week was the Siyum HaShas in London. An event which was not attended by certain prominent Rabbis within the community because threats were made that, if they attended, other people would get up and walk out in protest. It doesn’t matter how much Torah you learn. It doesn’t matter if you know all 2711 pages of the Talmud. We are blessed to live in a time when there has been an explosion of Torah learning – where programmes and shiurim and gap years and learning are so easily accessible to everyone. But it doesn’t matter. None of it matters if we cannot get along, if we cannot respect each other. Rashi reminds us in this parsha that one is allowed to change their words to make peace. Lie to make peace. Despite the pasuk “distance yourself from lies” (Shemot, 23:7). Because ultimately, as Yaakov teaches us in the moments before he is about to die, the way in which we merit eternal life is by learning to respect and value each other, and by creating peace.