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Torah Sparks

December 22, 2007 – 13 Tevet 5768

Annual: Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 47:28--48:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 – 12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

As Jacob’s life draws to a close, he summons his son Joseph. Jacob asks Joseph to swear that he will not bury him in Egypt, but will return his body to Canaan for burial in the cave of Machpelah. Later, Joseph brings his sons to visit his ailing father. Jacob tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh will be considered equal to Jacob’s sons. Jacob blesses his son and grandsons. Jacob then gathers all of his sons and speaks to each individually about his character and his future, “addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” Jacob then dies at the age of 147. Joseph has his father’s body prepared according to the Egyptian custom and then Jacob’s family, accompanied by Egyptian dignitaries, travels to Canaan to bury him with his parents and grandparents. Joseph’s brothers, fearing what Joseph may do now that their father is dead, tell Joseph it was Jacob’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers. Joseph assures them that he bears no grudge because even though they acted out of spite, God turned their actions to good. Joseph dies at the age of 110, after asking his family to swear that they will return his bones to Canaan when God will bring the Israelites back to the land He has promised.

1. The Last Kindness

And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty [literally, do kindness and truth with me]: please do not bury me in Egypt. (Beresheit 47:29)

  1. The kindness that is shown to those who are dead, that is a true kindness, for one does not look forward to the payment of a recompense. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Can there be a false kindness, that he says to him, a kindness and truth? Why then did he speak thus? The common [cynical] proverb runs: When your friend’s son dies, bear with him [in sorrow]; when your friend dies, throw off sorrow [for he cannot repay you]. Therefore, he said to him, if you show me kindness at my death, and after my death, that indeed is true kindness. (Beresheit Rabbah 96:5)
  3. At first blush, it would appear that the kindness one does for the dead also has compensation, because, as our Sages tell us (Talmud Moed Katan 28): “If one eulogizes others, he is eulogized, if one buries others, he is buried.” However, we should note that Rashi says that “one does not look forward to the payment of a recompense.” In other words, there is indeed compensation, even for doing something for the dead, but no one looks forward to this compensation or wants to receive it. On the contrary, every person hopes that he will live a long life. (Rabbi Yonatan Binyamin HaKohen of Solish)
  4. When dealing kindly with a person in life, one cannot know whether it was truly kindness, for many times that which one thinks is an act of mercy and kindness results in harm. But the mercy one shows to the dead is always true mercy because this is loving-kindness which the dead truly require and it therefore cannot result in harm or evil. (Ohel Yaakov [Rabbi Joseph ben Wolf Kranz, known as the Maggid of Dubno, 1740-1804, Poland])

Sparks for Discussion

Do all acts of kindness to others include some calculation of return? Does the fact that a person who does acts of kindness and hopes for some reward, either in this world or the next, detract from the value of that kindness to the person who receives it? Is any person truly selfless? Ohel Yaakov suggests that sometimes an act that is meant as kindness may in fact be harmful. Under what circumstances does this happen?

Imagine a relative who has had a problem with alcohol. He has completed a course of treatment and has been sober for 90 days. He asks to borrow $3,000, which you can easily afford, for a security deposit on an apartment and new clothes for job hunting. Do you give him the money? Do you refuse? Do you agree to make the loan on the condition that you write the checks directly to the landlord and the clothing store? How do you decide what is really true kindness?

2. A Blessing On Your Head

So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (Beresheit 48:20)

  1. Whoever shall come to bless his sons will bless them with their blessing, and a man will say to his son, “God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.” (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Why should Jacob have wanted all his descendents to bless their children with the example of Ephraim and Manasseh rather than with that of some other two of the Tribes of Israel? Because the two young sons of Joseph had conducted themselves in accordance with the fundamental law of the Torah; namely, that one should neither consider oneself greater than another nor envy another. Even though Jacob had set Ephraim, the younger son, before Manasseh, the first-born, Ephraim did not become arrogant and Manasseh did not become jealous. Seeing this, Jacob expressed the hope that all the Children of Israel would be like Ephraim and Manasseh, free of arrogance and envy. (Igra DeKallah [Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov, 1795-1851, Poland])
  3. Why specifically as Ephraim and Manasseh? The reason is that Jacob realized that the time of the exile of his descendents was approaching, and he knew that in exile their Jewishness was in great danger. He therefore blessed them that they should be as Ephraim and Manasseh – the first Jews who were born, grew up, and were educated in exile – and yet in spite of that, they “are mine” – they remained faithful to the House of Israel, just as Reuven and Shimon. (Yalkut Yehuda [Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, 1885-1946, Russia, United States])

Sparks for Discussion

We bless our daughters, “God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” Why don’t we bless our sons in the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What comes to mind when you bless your sons or grandsons in the names of Ephraim and Manasseh? What blessings would you choose for your children and grandchildren?

Halakhah L'Ma-aseh

48:1 “Your father is ill.” Bikur Holim, visiting the sick, is one of the mitzvot “which yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come.” The purpose of this mitzvah is to cheer up and encourage the sick person and to pray for his or her recovery. (The latter need not be elaborate – think of Moses’ prayer for his sister Miriam: “Please God, please heal her.”) The Shulhan Arukh lays out specific laws for visiting the sick, but much of it is common sense: Call ahead to make sure visits are welcome and to find out what time of day the sick person is best able to receive visitors. Don’t bring sad or disturbing news. Don’t touch the sick person or sit on the bed without asking first, since these things can sometimes cause pain. And the sick person really doesn’t need to hear how your sister-in-law’s cousin suffered terribly and then died from exactly the same illness.

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