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Torah Sparks

January 6, 2007 – 16 Tevet 5767

Annual: Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 49:27-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 305; Hertz p. 187)
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 – 12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

In his final days, Jacob extracts an oath from Joseph to bury him in his ancestral burial place in Canaan.

When Joseph brings his two sons to visit their ailing grandfather, Jacob blesses them both, although not in the order that Joseph expects.

Jacob addresses personalized parting comments to each of his sons, recapitulating some of the salient points of their lives and anticipating what the future may hold for them and their descendants.

After Joseph and his brothers bury Jacob in Canaan, Joseph builds upon his earlier remarks (Genesis 45:5-8) to the effect that sending him involuntarily to Egypt had been part of a greater divine plan to save many lives. He has rationalized that his ascendancy to a position of leadership in Egypt had facilitated the survival for Jacob and all his extended family in a time of famine.

Before his death, Joseph obtains a commitment from his kin to eventually rebury him in Canaan when they or their descendants eventually leave Egypt.

Issue #1: Residence in Egypt vs. Destiny in the Promised Land

After Jacob’s death, his sons dutifully escort his body to Canaan and bury him in the family burial space. There is no surprise here; in Genesis 47:29-31 Joseph had sworn to his father that he would do exactly that. In fact, Joseph referred to that very oath as he requested permission to journey to Canaan to attend to Jacob’s burial from Pharaoh (Genesis 50:4-6).

It is also not surprising that Joseph returned to Egypt after burying his father. After all, he had lived in Egypt virtually all his adult life. His wife was certainly of Egyptian origin, and his sons had been born and raised in Egypt. Moreover, in case Joseph might succumb to a hankering for the Old Country, we are told that he was accompanied by a significant Egyptian entourage, which would be an obstacle to bailing out of his expected return to continue working for Pharaoh (Genesis 50:7-9).

But what are we to make of Joseph’s brothers’ voluntary return to Egypt? Hadn’t they just come to Egypt temporarily to wait out the famine that had afflicted Canaan? Jacob had lived in Egypt for 17 years, as specified in Genesis 47:28, and so had his sons. We can understand that moving Jacob back to Canaan during his final years probably was not practical. But why would Joseph’s brothers not plan to remain in Canaan after journeying there to bury their father?

The text of the Torah does not even hint at this question. If we are to explore this question, we must use our own intuition and life experience.

Could we say that there is a parallel between this issue and the oft-asked question about why Jews continue to live in North America, when no one is actively preventing them from moving to Israel? Is the issue different for the brothers who had just recently left Canaan and Joseph who had lived so long away?

Issue #2: The Pardoning of Joseph's Brothers

After Jacob’s burial, in Genesis 50:15-17 Joseph’s brothers assert that during his lifetime Jacob had directed that Joseph pardon his brothers for having sold him into slavery. However, unlike the oath cited above, which Joseph quoted to Pharaoh, this is a directive that we are now learning of for the first time. If no such utterance is recorded, we are tempted to wonder whether the brothers are faithfully transmitting Jacob’s words or simply fabricating them.

If we suspect a fabrication on the part of the brothers, we are in good company. Rashi (1040-1105) cites a Talmudic discussion (Yevamot 65b) of this issue suggesting that the brothers invented Jacob’s directive. His logic is echoed in the Etz Hayim commentary on the Torah:

We have no reason to believe that Jacob ever learned the truth about how Joseph came to Egypt. If he had, would he not have rebuked them for what they did, as he rebuked Reuben, Simeon, and Levi?

Obviously, if Jacob did not know that Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery, he would have had no reason to issue a directive to Joseph to forgive his brothers.

What justification, if any, can be given for the brothers’ fabrication of their father’s words?

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