Parshat Vayechi: Jacob’s Legacy to the House of Joseph

We read in this week`s parsha about two encounters between Jacob and Joseph. I would like to show how the two meetings reflect deep-seated issues that concern Jacob at the end of his life. These issues come together and form the basis for Jacob`s final testament to his beloved son.

Cave MachpelaFirst, we are informed that Jacob calls Joseph to his side and asks that his son bury him in the land of Canaan, in the cave of Machpela, and not in Egypt. Jacob does not accept a simple verbal commitment from Joseph, but rather demands an accompanying vow (47:28-31). Why so? Jacob is aware that Joseph is not a free agent. Despite his having climbed the ladder of success and power, Joseph is subject to the dictates and whims of Pharoah. Later on we read that Egypt is called a “house of bondage.” The viceroy himself does not enter or exit Egypt without permission. In the ancient world, an oath was perceived as a commitment that even a king could not ignore, and so Jacob demanded one from his son, not because he didn`t trust him, but rather because he was not sure that Pharoah would allow Joseph to carry out this plan (Ramban). Jacob’s insistence on the oath underscores his sober awareness that his children are not really free in their adopted land, one of several hints that Egypt will ultimately enslave them.

Interestingly, the next meeting between the two is initiated by Joseph. The latter hears that his father is sick, and brings his two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, to be blessed by their grandfather (48:1-22). This situation reminds us of Jacob`s receiving the blessing from his ailing father Isaac, who is tricked into thinking that he is actually blessing Esau. The content of the blessing to Joseph’s sons is prefaced by a blessing to Joseph himself, which will eventually be transferred to them. This blessing is similar to the Abrahamic blessing that Isaac bestows on Jacob before the latter flees to Haran, rather than the blessing that Jacob had received duplicitously.

בראשית פרק מח

ג) וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל יוֹסֵף אֵל שַׁדַּי נִרְאָה אֵלַי בְּלוּז בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתִי

ד) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי הִנְנִי מַפְרְךָ וְהִרְבִּיתִךָ וּנְתַתִּיךָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים וְנָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם

בראשית פרק כח

א) וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתו …ֹ

ג) וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ וְהָיִיתָ לִקְהַל עַמִּים

ד) וְיִתֶּן לְךָ אֶת בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם

These are the crucial blessings: the land and the growth of the nation. These are the blessings that Jacob wishes to pass on to Joseph and to his sons.

It is not clear from the text that Jacob would have singled out these two grandsons had Joseph not taken the initiative. Indeed, Jacob had not included his grandsons in the meeting that he had initiated with their father. The notion that history can be determined by human action, and that dramatic events are the outcome of human resourcefulness, are important motifs in the stories of Bereishit (for example, when Sarah asks Abraham to marry Hagar). Perhaps Jacob saw Joseph`s visit with his sons as a divine sign, one that was suggested in the promise given to him on his return to Bethel (35:11-12) –

יא) וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ וּמְלָכִים מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ

יב) וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם וּלְיִצְחָק לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ

One might have expected, based on this blessing, that upon his return to the land Jacob would be rewarded with many more offspring, but in the next few verses we read that Rachel tragically dies in childbirth, and indeed no more children will be born to Jacob. All in all, he will have had only two sons with his beloved Rachel. And so, when Joseph appears on the scene with his two sons, Jacob perhaps is reminded of the two sons he shared with Rachel, and confers upon Joseph`s sons the status of his own.  By doing so, he effectively transfers the birthright from Reuben to Joseph. In addition, Jacob is increasing the numbers of his own offspring, descendants of Rachel, thus fulfilling the divine promise in his own way. Joseph’s two sons will receive portions in the land of Israel, which they will be expected to conquer and settle. Despite their having been born in the land of Egypt (a fact enunciated in 48:5), they will take part in the redemption of the nation and of the land. We can understand now more clearly why Jacob celebrates the fact that he lived to see both Joseph and his sons (48:11),

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת זַרְעֶךָ

an affirmation of the divine promise mentioned above. Jacob comes back to the subject that he had raised with Joseph in the previous encounter, the topic of burial. This time he reminds Joseph that he had buried Rachel in Canaan, on the road to Bethlehem, and not in the cave of Machpela, as one would have expected (48:7).

וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם

Why does Jacob return to this theme? It could be construed as an apology – Jacob admits that he is asking Joseph to do something that he himself had failed to do. This omission perhaps weighs on his conscience. But I would like to suggest another idea. Jacob is fully cognizant of the differences between Egypt and the land of Canaan. Life is good in Egypt (see 47:27), and realist that he is, Jacob does not exhort his children to return of their own accord to their homeland. Furthermore, Jacob remembers, perhaps bitterly, that Rachel died in the land of Canaan, on the road. Had they stayed in Haran, in a more civilized country, Rachel might not have died prematurely. Nevertheless, neither Padan Aram nor Egypt can replace the land of Israel for long. Haran was a city of refuge for the fleeing Jacob, but it quickly deteriorated into a place of servitude. Egypt too starts out as the salvation for Jacob`s family, but will turn into a mass prison. And so, after blessing Ephraim and Menasseh, Jacob`s parting words to Joseph begin with:

כא) וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל יוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵת וְהָיָה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּכֶם וְהֵשִׁיב אֶתְכֶם אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבֹתֵיכֶם

Jacob reluctantly left the land of his fathers in order to be reunited with his beloved Joseph. But Jacob makes it clear to Joseph that he has no intention of remaining in Egypt; he must be buried in his ancestral grave. Jacob`s love for Joseph, on the one hand,  and his commitment to the land of Israel, on the other, join together when Jacob seizes the opportunity afforded him by his son to include Joseph`s two sons in the divine mission of settling Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbanit Ruth WalfishRabbanit Ruth Walfish, a member of Beit Hillel, holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Education from Hebrew University, and has taught Bible for over thirty years to Hebrew- and English- speaking audiences. She heads the Bible Department at Efrata College in Jerusalem, where she trains student teachers in the teaching of Bible, and she also serves on the editorial board of the Jewish Bible Quarterly.

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