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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayehi
January 2, 2010 – 16 Tevet 5770

Annual (Gen. 47:28-50:26): Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180
Triennial (Gen. 49:27-50:26): Etz Hayim, p. 305; Hertz p. 187
Haftarah: Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

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 dies at the age of 147.

Joseph has his father’s body prepared according to Egyptian custom and 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 them.

1. The World to Come

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. (Genesis 49:33)

  1. But “death” is not stated regarding him. And our Rabbis said, “Jacob our father did not die.” (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. Rabbi Yohanan said: Jacob our father never died. Rabbi Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhak: Was it for nothing that they eulogized, embalmed, and buried him? He replied: I derive it from a scriptural verse, for it says, “But you have no fear, My servant Jacob... I will deliver you from far away, your children from the land of captivity” (Jeremiah 30:10). This verse compares Jacob to his children, the Jewish people. Just as the children of Jacob will be alive at the time of the redemption, so Jacob too will then be alive. (Talmud Taanit 5b)
  3. But the question still seems to remain unanswered. Should we set aside what the Torah says clearly just because of this obviously aggadic interpretation of the verse in Jeremiah? We may be able to answer this as follows: What Rabbi Yohanan meant to say was based on what our sages tell us (Talmud Berakhot 18). The righteous even in death are called alive, and, as opposed to them, the wicked are called dead even in their lives. Thus, as Jacob was righteous, even after his death he was called alive. Another answer we can give is that the Talmud in Bava Batra 116 says that Joab is referred to as having died, while David is referred to as merely lying down, the reason for the difference being that Joab died without leaving any children, while David died leaving children. Thus, a person who dies and leaves behind children is still considered to be alive. (Sarei Ha-Me’ah (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon), 1875-1962, Lithuania and Israel)
  4. In the world to come, there will be no eating or drinking or procreation or business or jealousy or hatred or competition, but the righteous will sit with crowns on their heads feasting on the radiance of the Shekhina, the divine presence. (Talmud Berakhot 17a)

Sparks for Discussion

The question “what happens when we die?” is as old as humanity. The rabbinic tradition affirms the existence of an afterlife but tells us very little about it. How do you believe we live on after death? In a world to come? Through our deeds in this world? Through our descendents? Through the years, there has been relatively little attention paid to the afterlife in Judaism. Why do you think that’s so? Are there practical consequences to this lack of attention?

2. Great Is Peace

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: ‘So you shall say to Joseph, Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’” (Genesis 50:15-17)

  1. Nowhere do we find in the Torah that Jacob issued such a command. It appears that the brothers found this in Jacob’s command to them, “Come together,” (49:1) which refers to unity, and a condition for unity is mutual forgiveness. (Sha’ar bat Rabim (Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Leib of Yedvobna), 19th century, Russia)
  2. The brothers believed that Joseph had refrained from punishing them while their father was still alive because he had not wanted to cause him grief. They therefore sent word to Joseph as follows: “Your father is dead, but his God is still alive. If you did not want to cause your father grief, you certainly cannot grieve the Master of the Universe, who is grieved by any suffering that comes to a son of Jacob.” (Ateret Tzvi (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Eichenstein of Zidichowe), d. 1831, Poland)
  3. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: Great is peace, for even the tribal ancestors resorted to a fabrication in order to make peace between Joseph and themselves. Thus it says, “Before his death your father left this instruction.” Yet when did he command this? We do not find that he did so. (B’reishit Rabbah 100:8)
  4. At the school of Rabbi Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for the sake of peace even the Holy Blessed One deviated from the truth and modified a statement. For at first it is written: [Sarah said] “with my husband so old.” And then it is written: [God told Abraham that Sarah said] “old as I am.” (Talmud Yevamot 65b)
  5. Both sources are necessary. If we only had the evidence of Joseph’s brothers, we could not infer that what they did was correct: Perhaps they were wrong to lie. And if we only had the evidence of God’s words to Abraham, we could only infer that a half-truth is permitted, not an actual lie. God does not say anything false – He merely omits some of Sarah’s words. Both together serve to establish the rule. Peace takes precedence over truth. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, p. 332)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators teach that lying for the sake of peace is permitted. Do you think this a reasonable stance? Should there be limits for this permission? May you lie to a dying person about his or her chances for recovery? What about lying to a friend, claiming that you don’t have the items or money she asks to borrow? Does it cover lying to your boss about being ill so that you don’t get fired? When does “for the sake of peace” become “to make my life easier?”

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