Parshat Vayehi opens with:
וַיְחִ֤י יַֽעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵי־יַֽעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה:
And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Yaakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years.
This verse is followed by:
וַיִּקְרְב֣וּ יְמֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘ לָמוּת֒ וַיִּקְרָ֣א | לִבְנ֣וֹ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם
When the time drew near for Yisrael to die, he called his son Yosef and said to him, “If I have now found favor in your eyes, now place your hand beneath my thigh, and you shall deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; do not bury me now in Egypt. (47:29)
I would suggest that, chronologically, verse 29 precedes verse 28 by 17 years. That, in fact, Yaakov’s sense of impending death and his requesting that his remains be repatriated to Canaan occurs immediately upon his arrival in Egypt. Otherwise, the opening verse of Chapter 40 which indeed does take place 17 yeas after Yaakov’s arrival – when he actually on his death bed – would make no sense:
וַיְהִ֗י אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְיוֹסֵ֔ף הִנֵּ֥ה אָבִ֖יךָ חֹלֶ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י בָנָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ אֶת־מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה וְאֶת־אֶפְרָֽיִם:
Now it came to pass after these incidents that [someone] said to Yosef, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took his two sons with him, Menashe and Ephraim. (40:1)
Yaakov, like is father Yitzhak, senses death approaching long before it actually occurs. We will recall how the blessing Yitzhak gives to Yaakov, and the subsequent, and lesser, blessing he gives to Esav, take place decades prior to Yitzhak’s death. Likewise, the “final request” Yaakov makes of Yosef takes places fully 17 years before actual death is imminent.
Why were these patriarchs so prematurely fearful of death? Why the premonition at such an early stage?
I have no satisfactory answer for this, other than the common practice to prepare one’s last will and testament – even in our time – long before we are at death’s door. It is merely a matter of prudence on Yitzhak’s part to take care of this business sooner rather than when it’s too late. And Yaakov follows his father’s example by taking this precaution as well.
There is another striking parallel between the story of Yitzhak’s blessing of Yakov and Esav and the one Yaakov later bestows on Efraim and Menashe. In both instances the younger brother is given precedence over the elder one:
וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה שִׂכֵּל֙ אֶת־יָדָ֔יו כִּ֥י מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה הַבְּכֽוֹר
But Yisrael stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Efraim’s head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Menashe’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Menashe was the firstborn. (48:14)
In the case of Yaakov and Esav it was unintentional on Yitzhak’s part. In the case of Efraim and Menashe it was deliberate on Yaakov’s part. Yet it is clear that Yaakov uses the precedent set by his own usurping of first-born status to enable him to prioritize the younger Efraim over the senior Menashe.
I believe the Torah is teaching an important lesson regarding primogeniture. That while Torah goes along with the universal custom of privileging the eldest brother over his siblings, it is not totally comfortable with such a practice. It understands that the accident of birth doesn’t, in and of itself, make an older sibling more deserving. That there are instances in which a wise father (or mother, or the hand of God) must interfere and elevate the younger sibling to the premier spot. Yes, all things being equal, we go along with the common custom. But when there is a clear qualitative difference between the brothers, one can – indeed one must – breach the common practice and do what makes most sense.
From the opening verses of Chapter 48, when Yaakov is truly on his death bed, it is evident that, despite his love for Yosef, Yaakov has clearly been alienated by his son the Viceroy and perceives himself as subordinate to, and somewhat mistrustful of, his mighty son. This is evidenced by the obsequious manner in which he addresses Yosef;
שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָֽדְךָ֖ תַּ֣חַת יְרֵכִ֑י וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ עִמָּדִי֙ חֶ֣סֶד וֶֽאֱמֶ֔ת אַל־נָ֥א תִקְבְּרֵ֖נִי בְּמִצְרָֽיִם
now place your hand beneath my thigh, and you shall deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; do not bury me now 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 long 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 Joseph’s assimilation.
(Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that Yosef, in requesting Pharaoh’s permission to repatriate his father’s body uses the same obsequious language:
וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ֙ יְמֵ֣י בְכִית֔וֹ וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶל־בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם דַּבְּרוּ־נָ֕א בְּאָזְנֵ֥י פַרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר
When the days of his weeping had passed, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s household, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak now in Pharaoh’s ears, saying, (50:4)
In this instance. Yosef is not even addressing Pharaoh himself, but rather using courtiers in Pharaoh’s palace as intermediaries. Can this indicate some early fissures between Yosef and the monarch? That now that the 14 years of feast and famine have ended he is no longer quite that secure in his position?)
After a long lapse of time, word reaches Yosef that his father is ill. This is further evidence of the geographic and emotional distance between son and father:
וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י בָנָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ אֶת־מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה וְאֶת־אֶפְרָֽיִם
And he takes his two sons Menashe and Efraim with him (48:1).
Clearly they are nowhere nearby when word reaches Yosef. It is furthermore evident that, in all likelihood, this is the first time the two boys are being introduced to their grandfather.
וַיַּ֥רְא יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מִי־אֵֽלֶּה
Then Yisrael saw Yosef’s sons, and he said, “Who are these?”(48:8)
Yaakov, in announcing his decision to classify Efraim and Menashe as if they were his own sons, makes a double reference to Egypt, thereby underscoring the fact that the boys are thoroughly Egyptian, having been untouched by Yaakov’s Hebrew character and values:
וְעַתָּ֡ה שְׁנֵֽי־בָנֶ֩יךָ֩ הַנּֽוֹלָדִ֨ים לְךָ֜ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם עַד־בֹּאִ֥י אֵלֶ֛יךָ מִצְרַ֖יְמָה לִי־הֵ֑ם אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי
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).
That this is Yaakov’s first encounter with these grandsons is made further manifest by two things:
- When told who the boys are, Yaakov tells Yosef: רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹהִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ “I never expected to see your face, and behold G-d has shown me even your children.”(48:11)
- 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 demonstrates any familiarity with their respective charactersוַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַהוּא֘ לֵאמוֹר֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה
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 something about his grandkids, or at the very least to know who they are.
Having blessed his grandsons, Yaakov, now in full ‘Yisrael’ mode, utters what may well be his most important pronouncement in this parsha:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף הִנֵּ֥ה אָֽנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וְהָיָ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְהֵשִׁ֣יב אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֶל־אֶ֖רֶץ אֲבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם
“And Yisrael said to Yosef behold I am about to die, and God 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 Vayehi.
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;
וַיַּ֥עַל יוֹסֵ֖ף לִקְבֹּ֣ר אֶת־אָבִ֑יו וַיַּֽעֲל֨וּ אִתּ֜וֹ כָּל־עַבְדֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ זִקְנֵ֣י בֵית֔וֹ וְכֹ֖ל זִקְנֵ֥י אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרָֽיִם
And Yosef ascended to bury his father, and with him ascended all of Phaaroh’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;
וְכֹל֙ בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאֶחָ֖יו וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו רַ֗ק טַפָּם֙ וְצֹאנָ֣ם וּבְקָרָ֔ם עָֽזְב֖וּ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ גּֽשֶׁן
And all the household of Yosef and his brothers and his father’s household. (57:8)
The social hierarchy of this funeral procession is made manifest. The brothers and their families were all the way in the back.
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;
וַיְצַוּ֕וּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף לֵאמֹ֑ר אָבִ֣יךָ צִוָּ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹת֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר: כֹּה־תֹֽאמְר֣וּ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף אָ֣נָּ֡א שָׂ֣א נָ֠א פֶּ֣שַׁע אַחֶ֤יךָ וְחַטָּאתָם֙ כִּֽי־רָעָ֣ה גְמָל֔וּךָ וְעַתָּה֙ שָׂ֣א נָ֔א לְפֶ֥שַׁע עַבְדֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ יוֹסֵ֖ף בְּדַבְּרָ֥ם אֵלָֽיו
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.(50:16-17)
There is no shred of evidence that Yaakov ever found out what the brothers had done to Yosef. Indeed, 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:
וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֛ם יוֹסֵ֖ף אַל־תִּירָ֑אוּ כִּ֛י הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי:
…Don’t be afraid. For am I in the place of God?”– (50:19)
The words הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי “Am I in the place of G-d?” are identical to Yaakov’s rebuke to Rachel when she demanded that he give her children – הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי (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 retribution, but that these are in G-d’s hands. Hence Yosef is not letting his brothers off the hook. He is merely leaving it to G-d to do justice.
When it is Yosef’s turn to die, he comes full circle echoing his father’s words as he addresses his brothers and his children;
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו אָֽנֹכִ֖י מֵ֑ת וֵֽאלֹהִ֞ים פָּקֹ֧ד יִפְקֹ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֗ם וְהֶֽעֱלָ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶל־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֛ע לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְיַֽעֲקֹֽב
Yosef said to his brothers, “I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov.(50:24)
וַיַּשְׁבַּ֣ע יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר פָּקֹ֨ד יִפְקֹ֤ד אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְהַֽעֲלִתֶ֥ם אֶת־עַצְמֹתַ֖י מִזֶּֽה:
And Yosef adjured the children of Israel, saying, “God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here.” (50:25)
And yet a huge question remains: Why didn’t the brothers and their families return to Canaan? We noted how when they first arrived in Egypt they had packed everything they owned. Yet the Torah makes it a point to tell us here that when they went back for Yaakov’s funeral they left their cattle and possessions behind.
One would think that with the death of their father they would head back to Canaan. After all, the famine was over. They had been treated by Yosef and by Egyptian society as second-class citizens, consigned to the empty land of Goshen. Plus, they were clearly afraid that, following Yaakov’s death, Yosef would finally exact his vengeance.
The funeral of Yaakov was a perfect opportunity to not only go back to Canaan, but to stay there. And yet they chose to return back to Egypt. Am I the only one who notices a distinct parallel to what is happening in the world right now?