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Virtual Beit Midrash, Alon Shevut, Gush Etzion 90433 e-mail: yhe@virtual.co.il,

Home Page: http://www.vbm-torah.org/



By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

Change in Attitude

Sefer Bereishit closes with Parashat Vayechi. Notwithstanding the parasha's name, "And Yaakov lived," the parasha really brings closure to our book of beginnings with the death of Yaakov, and subsequently the death of Yosef. Between these two death notices, there are two brief exchanges between Yosef and his brothers. With the death of their father Yaakov, the brothers are still nervous that Yosef will try to exact revenge for their mistreatment of him years before. They send Yosef a message that before Yaakov died, he wanted Yosef to forgive his brothers for any misdeed. Note how they stress the words "your father," clearly playing on Yosef's close relationship with Yaakov.

"And when Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead:" What is the meaning of "they saw"? They could perceive that he was dead through the conduct of Yosef. Previously, they used to dine at Yosef's table and he used to receive them with open arms, out of respect for his father; after Yaakov's death, however, he no longer treated them in a friendly manner. (Rashi)

What is difficult about the simple reading of the text, "When Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead," that forced Rashi to add his comment? Yaakov had already been buried, so clearly the brothers must have "seen" something else. Thus, Rashi suggests that they "saw" a change in Yosef's behavior, reflecting a change in attitude. Before, they felt welcomed, and suddenly, Yosef was very cold to them.

In another midrash in Bereishit Rabba, R. Yitzchak suggests that on the way back to Canaan to bury Yaakov, the brothers saw Yosef visit the pit that he was thrown into years before. Not realizing that his intentions were simply to thank Hashem for his deliverance, they worried that the old wound had been re-opened in Yosef's mind.

In Rashi's understanding, as long as their father remained alive, the brothers felt assured that Yosef would not attempt to punish them. Upon Yaakov's death, however, any feelings of family unity disintegrated. Eerily, this is not an unknown pattern in Sefer Bereishit. Earlier, having lost the blessings to Yaakov's manipulations, Esav famously threatened to wait until after his father passed away to even the score with his deceitful sibling. As a result of this precedent, the brothers sent the message to Yosef claiming that Yaakov did not want him to hold a grudge.

What did Yaakov Know?

In order for Yaakov to send such a message, he would have to have known the truth about what happened between Yosef and his brothers. But the Torah never states that the brothers disclosed to Yaakov that they had been responsible for Yosef's disappearance and that they had engineered the whole bloody-coat-sale-into-Egypt episode. In fact, the text glosses over what they did and did not relate (45:26,27); while it is difficult to build an argument from lack of evidence, there is no clear indication that the brothers ever said anything about the incident to Yaakov. Upon their return to Canaan, the Torah relates that they told Yaakov that Yosef was alive and the ruler over all of Egypt, but they don't ever describe to Yaakov how Yosef in fact ended up there in the first place. By avoiding telling their father about the circumstances of Yosef descent to Egypt, it was possible for them to make a clean break from their past.

But didn't Yaakov wonder how Yosef had survived and how he got to be promoted to viceroy of Egypt? Furthermore, did Yosef ever tell this story to his father? If not, why not?

The midrash offers the following answer:

Behold, all of Yosef's praiseworthiness consisted of the great respect he paid his father, yet he did not visit him frequently. For were it not for the fact that others came to tell him, "Your father is ill" (Bereishit 48:1), he would not have known. The purpose of this is, however, to make known to you his righteousness, that he did not want to be alone with his father that he should not say to him, "What did your brothers do to you?" And Yaakov would be prompted to curse the brothers. For this reason, he refrained from paying frequent visits to his father. (Pesikta Rabati)

Yosef, who loved and respected his father, did not visit him frequently and therefore had to be informed of his immanent death. The midrash explains that Yosef rarely saw his father and avoided ever being alone with him so as not to be asked embarrassing questions or forced to share the story that would have, by necessity, implicated his brothers for their past misdeeds. This might similarly explain why Yosef avoided contacting his father after he was appointed the viceroy of Egypt and had the means to do so.

This is reflected in the words of the Ramban:

It seems to me that the plain meaning of the text is that Yaakov was never told of the sale of Yosef by his brothers, but he imagined that he got lost in the fields and was sold by his finders to Egypt. His brothers did not wish to divulge their misconduct, especially for fear of his curse and anger. Yosef, out of his good nature, also did not wish to tell his father. That is why the text states that they sent a message to Yosef, saying, "Your father commanded before his death saying, 'Forgive now, I pray, the transgressions of your brothers.'" Had Yaakov known all the time, they should have begged their father on his deathbed to command Yosef to forgive them and not violate his word. (Commentary of the Ramban, 45:27)

Thus, Yaakov could not have sent the message that the brothers claimed he did; he never knew they had sinned and required forgiveness on Yosef's part. Rashi cites the midrash that this was a "white lie for the sake of peace," and the Talmud (Yevamot 62) lists this incident among the cases in Tanakh where dishonestly for the sake of maintaining harmony is acceptable, and even required.

Still Uneasy

The brothers were clearly so uneasy about their relationship with Yosef that they felt it necessary to "lie" to convince him to forgive them. Why didn't the brothers believe Yosef's first declaration of forgiveness? Was it due to a mistaken belief that Yosef was being disingenuous, or was there something missing in Yosef's first words? Let us compare the original declaration with its counterpart in this week's parsha:



Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made be a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

15 Realizing that their father was dead, Yosef's brothers said, "What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" 16 So they approached Yosef, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died: 17 'Say to Yosef: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Yosef wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, and fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." 19 But Yosef said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

How did Yosef's second declaration, which uses essentially the same language, change matters in their eyes? R. Ephraim Luntshitz, the author of the Keli Yakar, suggests that the brothers' concern was not that Yosef would harm them, but that he would not provide them with a special added degree of care. In our parasha, Yosef adds that he will provide for them and their families (49:21), and they are reassured. However, the simple meaning of the verse implies that they were genuinely afraid for their lives. The Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin) stresses the spontaneity and immediacy of Yosef's tears in our parasha. While words can be false, it is much more difficult to fake tears. The brothers intuitively knew that Yosef's tears were genuine, and that he indeed sincerely forgave them. They therefore believed his second declaration of forgiveness.

I wish to suggest a third approach based on a comparison between the two reconciliations. In the first, although Yosef displayed tremendous magnanimity in forgiving the harm that his brothers intended, stating clearly and decisively that everything that occurred was part of the Divine plan, he was too forgiving. He went so far as to suggest that the brothers had performed no wrong at all (in my son's terminology: no harm, no foul). But the brothers knew that they had harmed Yosef much more grievously than that! After all, they had said to one another, "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (Bereishit 42:21). Given that the memory of their cruel behavior was burned into their consciousnesses, for Yosef statement that "it was not you who sold me hither" may have seemed like a whitewash! And if it was a whitewash, how could they feel that Yosef really was sincere?

In psychology, the concept of "working through pain" is of primary important. In many cases, if one tries to skip steps in this process, one will remain psychologically incomplete. For example, in mourning the death of a loved one, one must go through all the steps of mourning before one can move on. Of course, the same holds true for teshuva, repentance. Indeed, many of the insights of the Rav, Maran HaRav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt"l, on teshuva illustrate that the halakhot of teshuva express the notion of working through the feelings of self-loathing as a consequence of the sins one has committed, as well as a affirmation to recreate oneself.

Now, let us look again at the second declaration. For the first time, Yosef acknowledges that his brothers actually acted cruelly towards him. "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good." While his previous declaration had only mentioned that his brothers sold him into Egypt, now Yosef verbalizes for the first time the enmity and anger that caused them to do so. Yosef's brothers had worked through their feelings and were truly remorseful for their actions. They now understand that Yosef had also worked through his feelings and had forgiven them. This time, he did not gloss over the terrible crime that they had done. After many years, Yosef had worked through it all and was finally ready and willing to forgive.



Stranger in a Strange Land

In the first section of our parasha there is a striking discussion between Yaakov and Yosef. Yosef approaches Yaakov as a son to his father – he speaks to him with reverence, and at the same time Yaakov bows to Yosef. Yaakov is Yosef’s father, and Yosef labors to give his father the proper respect. At the same time Yaakov bows to Yosef because Yosef is the ruler in Egypt, and Yaakov shows respect to the government (Ibn Ezra, 47:31). Although Yaakov is showing respect to Yosef, we see from the beginning of the verse that Yaakov is in control of this situation; he is the one, acting as Yisrael, who says, “Swear to me, and he [Yosef] swore to him” (Bereishit 47:31).

This encounter repeats itself in the next section, where Yaakov calls for Yosef again. Again Yaakov is deferential to Yosef and again Yaakov is in control of this timeless exchange. However, this time Yaakov asks Yosef, concerning the latter’s sons, “Who are they?” These are the same sons Yaakov will hug and kiss one verse later! Yaakov is really asking Yosef whether they are worthy of a blessing. Are they worthy of entering into Klal Yisrael, or are they Egyptian children?

These interactions illustrate the dynamic between Yaakov and Yosef at this point. Yosef is the current ruler of Egypt. Yosef has saved the country from financial ruin and starvation. Yosef saved his family as well and has supported them for the past seventeen years. But Yaakov is Yisrael, and he is concerned with the future of Klal Yisrael.

The names Yosef gives his sons represent two different views of Yosef’s stay in Egypt. Ephraim’s name represents that of a stranger. “Ki hifrani Elokim be-eretz onyi – God has made me fruitful me in the land of my oppression” (Bereishit 41:52). Yosef sees Egypt as eretz onyi, not his home. On the other hand, Menasheh’s name represents that of a resident of Egypt, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all of my father’s house” (Bereishit 41:51). Yosef no longer sees himself as part of his father’s house.

When Yaakov meets Yosef in our parasha he asks, “Who are these?” Are they part of Mitzrayim or Yisrael? Yaakov asks Yosef, how do you see yourself, as the ruler of Egypt, or a child of Yisrael? Yaakov puts his right hand on the head of Ephraim, not Menasheh. This is saying: I like the stance of “hifrani Elokim be-eretz onyi,” and not “nashani Elokim."

Yaakov’s order to Yosef is along these lines as well. Yaakov tells Yosef not to bury him in Egypt. Yaakov says that although he has been staying in Egypt for the past seventeen years and he is grateful for the seventeen years of support, Egypt is not his home. He is only a visitor, a temporary transient, a ger – not a citizen. Therefore Yaakov demands Yosef return him to Eretz Yisrael to be buried, and by doing so demonstrates this point.

Yosef internalized this message as well. Yosef was the controller of Egypt – he ruled the country. However, at the end he didn’t see Egypt as his home; his stay was to be viewed as temporary as well. Therefore, Yosef follows Yaakov’s example, and orders his brothers to bury him in Eretz Yisrael as well. Finally, Yosef’s request (in light of his vision) was realized, when Moshe took Yosef’s bones along during the Exodus from Egypt.

(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Vayechi 5766 [2006].)



A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene hulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.Web Site: http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/

Burial and Blessing

Dr. Mordechai Sabato Department of Talmud

This week’s reading deals with Jacob’s last days in Egypt, as stated at the beginning of the reading: “The time approached for Israel to die.” The account of these events can be divided in two: from the beginning of the reading until the end of chapter 49, which contains Jacob’s testament to his sons, and chapter 50, describing his death and burial. [1]

Jacob’s testament to his sons can be divided into four paragraphs:

1. 47:28-31, in which Jacob asks Joseph not to bury him in Egypt,

2. 48:1-22, in which Jacob blesses Joseph, as well as his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh,

3. 49:1-28, in which Jacob blesses his twelve sons, [2]

4. 49:29-33, in which Jacob instructs his sons to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah.

These four paragraphs, following one after the other, deal with two themes – the place of Jacob’s burial, and his testament to his sons. The last two paragraphs form a chiastic parallel to the first two, meaning an arrangement in the order A-B-B-A. The third paragraph, dealing with Joseph’s blessing to his sons, parallels the second paragraph, dealing with Jacob’s blessing to Joseph, and the fourth paragraph, dealing with Jacob’s command to his sons to bury him in the land of Canaan, parallels the first paragraph, also dealing with Jacob’s request of Joseph to bury him with his ancestors.


Thus we can say that we have two sections, each of them comprised of two paragraphs, and that the sections parallel each other. In the first section, comprised of paragraphs one and two, Joseph stood alone before Jacob. He was the recipient of the request concerning Jacob’s burial and he was the one blessed, while the rest of the sons are not mentioned at all. In the second section, comprised of paragraphs three and four, all of the sons, including Joseph, stood before Jacob. They were all given parting words and all were commanded to see to his burial, and Joseph had no special status in this section. [3] An indication of this difference is given at the beginning of each section. The first opens with the words, “He summoned his son Joseph,” whereas the second opens with, “And Jacob called his sons,” and concludes with, “All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” [4]

Language Connections

In each of the two sections one can find linguistic connections between the two paragraphs comprising it. The first paragraph concludes with the verse, “Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed,” and the second paragraph says, “Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” Both paragraphs mention the subject of burial; in the first, Jacob’s burial, and in the second, Rachel’s. Also the opening phrase of the second paragraph – “Some time afterward” – clearly ties the two paragraphs together. The same holds for the two paragraphs comprising the second section. In the first paragraph Jacob says to his sons, “Come together that I may tell you,” and in the second he says to them, “I am about to be gathered to my kin.” The first paragraph concludes, “this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each [Heb. otam] a parting word appropriate to him [ otam],” and the second begins, “Then he instructed them [otam].” The linguistic connection between each pair of paragraphs is indicative of their connection in content: he who takes care of Jacob’s burial is also worthy of receiving his blessing, and those who receive his parting words are the ones charged with seeing to his burial.

The chiastic structure is also indicative of the relationship between Jacob being buried in the land of Canaan and his parting words to his sons. The paragraphs dealing with his burial are the frame, with the blessings and parting words enclosed in between, indicating that promising to bury him in the land of Canaan is what makes the blessings possible. The importance of his burial place in Jacob’s eyes can also be seen from the parallel between the end of the first paragraph and the end of the last paragraph. At the end of the first it says, “And he said, ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed,” and at the end of the second it says, “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” Jacob could find peace only after Joseph had sworn to him, and this peace was expressed by his bowing at the head of his bed; and only after instructing his sons regarding his burial could Jacob draw his feet into his bed and breathe his last.

What is signified by the connection between Jacob’s request to be buried in the land of Canaan and his parting words to his sons? To understand this point we must compare it to the passage at the end of the reading in which Joseph makes the children of Israel swear: “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, ‘When G-d has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” Just as Jacob made Joseph swear, so Joseph made Israel’s sons swear. However Jacob made Joseph swear he would not bury him in Egypt, but would take him shortly after his death to the land of Canaan, whereas Joseph made them swear to take up his bones only when the entire people were to be redeemed from Egypt.

Between Jacob and Joseph

This difference reflects the disparity between Jacob’s status and Joseph’s status. Jacob was one of the three patriarchs of the nation, whereas Joseph was one of the tribes comprising the nation. Joseph, who had been separated from his brothers at Shechem and taken down to Egypt, sought to return and become reunited with them, and that would happen only when all the children of Israel left Egypt for the land of Canaan. Had Joseph requested that he be buried in the land of Canaan shortly after his death, that would have been an expression of estrangement from his brothers. But Jacob insisted that he be buried with his ancestors in the Cave of Machpelah close upon his death, and in this regard said to Joseph, “When I lie down with my fathers ... bury me in their burial-place.” He also reiterated this to his sons, “Bury me with my fathers ... there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah.” Jacob knew that only by being united with his fathers in the Cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan would it be able to create a complete bond between the three patriarchs and the land, and the eternal bond between the people and their land would be forged.

Jacob’s insistence not to be buried in Egypt assured that his children would not settle permanently in that land. Jacob’s demand that he be buried with his fathers was what assured that the Lord would be with his children and would bring them back to the land of their ancestors.

Blessing and the Land

Both Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and his parting words to his sons are based on the people of Israel dwelling in their land. The second paragraph deals with Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and begins with the Lord’s promise to Jacob: “I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.” This promise is the basis for Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and for his saying to Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, that they would be as Reuben and Simeon to him. Also the conclusion of the paragraph returns to the theme of possessing the land: “I am about to die; but G-d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” Also Jacob’s blessing to his sons is directed, inter alia, at the tribal inheritance of the land. Thus we see that without first assuring the bond between the nation and its land, there would be no place for Jacob’s blessing to Joseph or to the twelve tribes, and this bond is conditional, as we said, on Jacob being buried with his fathers.

[1] From verse 14 on, Scripture describes what took place after the burial. However this event too can be related to Jacob’s death, since the subject is the tension between Joseph and his brothers now that Jacob is no longer alive. [2] In this article I ascribe to the interpretation that the third paragraph concerns Jacob’s parting words to his sons and that the concluding verse, “this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him,” relates to the entire passage. See the discussion of this point in the Hebrew article by Amos Hakham on Parashat Va-Yehi, 1999 (no. 269). [3] In this section, too, Joseph’s blessing is singular both in its length and its content. Nevertheless, here Joseph receives a blessing as part of the entire group of siblings. It should be noted that precisely in this section Judah is the brother who stands out above all the others, for he receives the blessing, “Your father’s sons shall bow low to you,” a blessing that until then had been true actually of Joseph, but this is not the place to go into further detail. [4] The duplication in the two sections and the need for it is a separate question which will not be discussed in this article. Suffice it to note that also chapter 50, describing Jacob’s actual burial, has considerable duplication between verses 1-11, which give an account of the burial at Joseph’s initiative (and use expressions matching what was said in the passage where Jacob makes Joseph swear regarding his burial), and verses 12-13, which again describe Jacob’s burial, this time by his sons (and there, too, one finds considerable matching of language between these verses and the ones describing Jacob’s instructions to his sons).


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