J.J Gross

Parshat Vayehi: The déjà vu of ‘התחת אלה-ים אני?’

The Parsha opens after Yaakov and his sons have sojourned in Egypt for seventeen years. From the narrative is appears that contact with Yosef has been minimal during this time, even for the Patriarch himself. Yaakov is now 147 years old. Like his father before him, believes he is approaching the end of his life, although he still has a long way to go. He wishes to put his affairs in order.

Yaakov loves Yosef, yet he is clearly alienated from him. He perceives himself as subordinate to, and somewhat mistrustful of, his mighty son. This is evidenced by the obsequious manner in which he addresses Yosef;   אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך … ועשית עמדי חסד ואמת אל נא תקברני במצרים  “If I shall have found favor in your eyes and you will do for me an act of true lovingkindness, please do not bury me in Egypt.”(47:29).

One would expect more imperative language for a patriarch’s final wish.

Despite Yosef’s affirmative response, Yaakov insists that he swear to it (47:31) which Yosef then does. Yaakov’s mistrust is likely the result of both Yosef’s absence and the thoroughness of his acculturation to Egyptian manners. Indeed, Yaakov errs in not including a request that his body not be defiled by embalming — as is Yosef’s at the end of the parsha — further attesting to the extremeness of Yosef’s assimilation.

In the second half of this verse (31), having achieved peace of mind knowing that he will be buried in the family crypt, the Cave of Mahpelah, Yaakov regains his sense of destiny and once again becomes Yisrael;    וישתחו ישראל על ראש המטה“And Israel bowed at the head of his bed.”

After an additional lapse of time, word reaches Yosef that his father is ill. This is further evidence of the distance – both emotional and geographic – between son and father. ויקח את שני בניו עמו את מנשה ואת אפרים  “And (Joseph) takes his two sons Menashe and Efraim with him” (42:1). Clearly they are nowhere nearby when word reaches Yosef. Furthermore, it is evident from the text that this is, in all likelihood, the first time the two boys are being introduced to their grandfather. As Yosef and his sons are en route to Yaakov, word reaches the patriarch of Yosef’s impending arrival;   ויתחזק ישראל וישב על המטה  “And Yaakov was energized and he sat in his bed” (48:3)

  ועתה שני בניך הנולדים לך בארץ מצרים עד באי אליך מצרימה לי הם אפרים ומנשה כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי  “And now your two sons who were born to you in the Land of Egypt prior to my arrival in Egypt they are mine, Efraim and Menashe will be to me like Reuven and Shimon” (48:5).

Even as Yaakov is announcing his decision to classify Efraim and Menashe as if they were his own sons, his double reference to Egypt underscores the fact that the two boys are thoroughly Egyptian, having been untouched by Yaakov’s Hebrew character and values. וירא ישראל את בני יוסף ויאמר מי אלה  “And Yaakov saw Yosef’s sons and he said, who are these?” (48:8). Even though Yaakov’s eyesight is weak, as the text tells us (48:10), one would assume a grandfather would know his grandsons, and certainly assume that it could only be they who are accompanying their father as Jacob sits on his death bed.

That this is Yaakov’s first encounter with these grandsons is made further manifest by two things:

  1. When told who the boys are, Yaakov tells Yosef:     ראה פניך לא פללתי והנה הראה אתי אלהים גם את זרעך  “I never expected to see your face, and behold G-d has shown me even your children.” (48:11)
  2. Unlike the very clear, character-specific blessings that Yaakov gives to his actual sons, for Efraim and Menashe he gives a shared and very generalized blessing that in no way reflects any familiarity with their respective characters:    ויברכם ביום ההוא לאמור בך יברך ישראל לאמר ישמך אלהים כאפרים ןכמנשה ….   “And he blessed them that day, saying, “In you Israel will be blessed, saying, “God should make you like Efraim and like Menashe…’ “ (48:20) Surely after 17 years of close contact one would expect a grandfather to know a thing or two about his grandkids, or at the very least to know who they are.

Having blessed his grandsons, Yaakov, nowin full ‘Yisrael mode utters what may well be his most important pronouncement in this parsha:   הנה אנכי מת והיה אלהים עמכם והשיב אתכם אל ארץ אבתיכם  “And Yisrael said to Yosef behold I am about to die, and G-d will be with (all of) you, and He will return (all of) you to the land of your forefathers.” (48:21)

This is a powerful message, one to which someone like Yosef is not likely to be especially receptive. Imagine a Jewish prime minister in Britain, or a Jewish President in America being told by his father, in no uncertain terms, that sooner or later they will be back in Israel. It would have been interesting to see the expression on Yosef’s face at that moment. But apparently the message sinks in, as we shall see at the conclusion of the parsha.

After undergoing the abomination of a 40 day embalming that was performed at the behest of Yosef (50:2) followed by 70 days of ritualized mourning, a huge funeral cortege accompanies Yaakov’s bier to Canaan;      ויעל יוסף לקבר את אביו ויעלו אתו כל עבדי פרעה זקני ביתו ןכל   זקני ארץ מצרים  ”And Yosef ascended to bury his father, and with him ascended all of Paroh’s servants and all the elders of his household and all the elders of the Land of Egypt” (50:7). Then, virtually as an afterthought;  וכל בית יוסף ואחיו  ובית אביו  “And all the house of Yosef and his brothers and his father’s household.” The hierarchy of this funeral procession is very clear.

With Yaakov now dead, the brothers once again worry that Yosef may take revenge. They have legitimate cause for concern, not only because of their culpability but also because, for 17 years now Yosef has not exactly showered them with fraternal affection.

The brothers attempt to buy Yosef’s forbearance by falsely quoting Yaakov;  אביך צוה לפני מותו  לאמר: כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וחטאתם כי רעה גמלוך ועתה שא נא לפשע עבדי אלהי אביך   “… before his death your father commanded as follows. ‘This is what you should tell Yosef: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”

When their message came to him, Yosef wept. (50:16-17) For one thing, there is no shred of evidence that Yaakov ever found out what the brothers had done to Yosef. For another, had Yaakov uttered these words he would have said them to Yosef directly. And, finally, it is evident from the brothers’ words that no one believed that Yosef any longer felt any fealty to the God of Israel.

However, what is very interesting is Yosef’s verbal response:  אל תיראו כי התחת אלהים אני. “…Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” – Ha-tahat Elo-him ani? – (50:19)

The words “Am I in the place of G-d” are identical to Yaakov’s rebuke to Rachel when she demanded that he give her children – התחת אלהים אנכי ha-tahat Elo-him anohi? (Bereishit 30:2).

This cannot be mere coincidence. I would suggest that in both places the implication is that the party in question deserves what he or she deserves – in the case of Rachel it is children, in the case of the brothers it is punishment, but that these are in G-d’s hands. Hence Yosef is not letting his brothers off the hook, merely leaving it to G-d to execute punishment.

When it is Yosef’s turn to die, he comes full circle echoing his father’s words as he addresses his children; ואלהים פקד יפקד אתכם ןהעלה אתכם מן הארץ הזאת אל הארץ אשר נשבע לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב  “and G-d will take care of you and will cause you to ascend from this land to the land that he promised to Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov… and you will bring up my bones from this.” (50:24-25)

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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