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J.J Gross
J.J Gross

Vayehi: The déjà vu of ‘התחת אלהים אני?’

The Parsha opens after Jacob and his sons have sojourned in Egypt for seventeen years. From the narrative is appears that contact with Joseph has been minimal during this time, even for the Patriarch himself. Jacob is now 147 years old and approaching the end of his life. He wishes to put his affairs in order.

Jacob loves Joseph, 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 Joseph;   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 Joseph’s affirmative response, Jacob insists that he swear to it (47:31) which Joseph then does. Jacob’s mistrust is likely the result of both Joseph’s absence and the thoroughness of his acculturation to Egyptian manners. Indeed, Jacob errs in not including a request that his body not be defiled by embalming — as is Joseph’s at the end of the parsha — further attesting to the extremeness of Joseph’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, Jacob regains his sense of destiny and once again becomes Israel;    וישתחו ישראל על ראש המטה“And Israel bowed at the head of his bed.”

After another lapse of time, word reaches Joseph 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 Manasseh and Ephraim with him” (42:1). Clearly they are nowhere nearby when word reaches Joseph. 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 Joseph and his sons are en route to Jacob, word reaches the patriarch of Joseph’s impending arrival;   ויתחזק ישראל וישב על המטה  “And Jacob 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, Ephraim and Manasseh will be to me like Reuben and Simeon” (48:5). Even as Jacob is announcing his decision to classify Ephraim and Manasseh 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 Jacob’s Hebrew character and values. וירא ישראל את בני יוסף ויאמר מי אלי  “And Jacob saw Joseph’s sons and he said, who are these?” (48:8). Even though Jacob’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 Jacob’s first encounter with these grandsons is made further manifest by two things:

  1. When told who the boys are, Jacob tells Joseph:     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 Jacob gives to his actual sons, for Ephraim and Manasseh 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 Ephraim and like Manasseh…’ “ (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, Jacob, in full ‘Israel’ 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 Israel said to Joseph 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 Joseph 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 Joseph’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 Joseph (50:2) followed by 70 days of ritualized mourning, a huge funeral cortege accompanies Jacob’s bier to Canaan;      ויעל יוסף לקבר את אביו ויעלו אתו כל עבדי פרעה זקני ביתו ןכל   זקני ארץ מצרים  ”And Joseph ascended to bury his father, and with him ascended all of Pharaoh’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 Joseph and his brothers and his father’s household.” The hierarchy of this funeral procession is very clear.

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

The brothers attempt to buy Joseph’s forbearance by falsely quoting Jacob;  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 Joseph: 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, Joseph wept. (50:16-17) For one thing, there is no shred of evidence that Jacob ever found out what the brothers had done to Joseph. For another, had Jacob uttered these words he would have said them to Joseph directly. And, finally, it is evident from the brothers’ words that no one believed that Joseph any longer felt any fealty to the God of Israel.

However, what is very interesting is Joseph’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 Jacob’s rebuke to Rachel when she demanded that he give her children – התחת אלהים אנכי ha-tahat Elo-him anohi?(Genesis 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 Joseph is not letting his brothers off the hook, merely leaving it to G-d to execute punishment.

When it is Joseph’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 Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. … 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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