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Torah Sparks

January 7, 2012 – 12 Tevet 5772

Annual: Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Triennial: Genesis 49:1-49:26 (Etz Hayim p. 298; Hertz p. 183)
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 – 12 (Etz Hayim p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


Parashat Vayechi marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis. It is the end of the beginning. We are told that Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years, forming a symmetry in his life: he enjoyed 17 years with his beloved son Joseph before the latter's "departure." As Jacob's life draws to a close, he secures a commitment from Joseph to bury him "with my ancestors" in Canaan. Joseph brings his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to receive their grandfather's blessing. Though Joseph positions them carefully, so that the elder, Manasseh, is at Jacob's right hand, Jacob crosses his arms, placing his right hand on Ephraim and despite Joseph's objections calling him by name before addressing the firstborn. Jacob blesses Joseph: "God will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your fathers." Apparently continuing the pattern of favoritism that led to such adversity in both their lives, Jacob tells Joseph, "I give you one portion more than to your brothers."

From his deathbed, Jacob recites poetic blessings and personalized messages of remonstrance to each of his sons, and before he dies he repeats his instructions to bury him in his ancestral plot in the cave of Machpelah, which his grandfather Abraham had bought. Joseph weeps bitterly at his father's death, and instructs the Egyptian physicians to embalm his body in preparation for its return to Canaan.

Egypt observes 70 days of official mourning for Joseph's father. Joseph secures Pharaoh's permission to accompany his father's remains to their final resting place. Jacob's sons carry him to Machpelah and observe a seven-day mourning period. With Jacob gone, Joseph's brothers fear he will seek revenge for their offenses against him. They tell him about Jacob's instructions that he forgive them – although the reader of the Bible has no corroboration that Jacob actually made such a statement!

Joseph assures them that they need not fear: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good. Fear not. I will sustain you and your children." Joseph lives to see great-grandchildren. Before dying at the age of 110, Joseph secures a promise from his brothers to "carry up my bones from here" when God will return their descendants to the Promised Land.

Theme #1: "The Names of the Fathers, Grandsons, and Holy Goals"

"And he blessed Joseph, saying: 'The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – Bless these lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they become teeming multitudes upon the earth.'" (Genesis 48:15-16)

Derash: Study

"The blessing was actually addressed not to Joseph but only to Joseph's two sons. Why, then, does Scripture say that Jacob blessed Joseph? In order to show that there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him and become good people. Hence Jacob's blessing to Manasseh and Ephraim is the greatest blessing Joseph, their father, could possibly have received." (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the Shlah - Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit)

"Children who, God forbid, do not follow the proper path, bring shame and dishonor on their parents and grandparents. Therefore, Jacob blessed them: 'In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers,' that they would be worthy to bear the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with distinction and glory, and that nothing in their actions would, God forbid, reflect ill on their origins." (cited in Rafael Friedman, Peninei Torah)

"'Redeemed me.' Despite his words in 47:9, perhaps Yaakov achieves a measure of peace in the end." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

"Jacob, after recapitulating the story of his personal providence in the first line of the blessing-poem, invokes the benediction of the patriarchal line, and then, going back still further in the biblical history, the promise, or injunction, of fertility from the Creation story." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"I write to tell my grandchildren where they come from, and what their grandparents were up to, and I hope they will in their own way continue. I invite anyone else to listen in." (Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg)

"Elephants and grandchildren never forget." (Andy Rooney)

Questions for Discussion

Did Jacob in fact achieve "a measure of peace in the end"? What evidence in Parashat Vayechi can be cited to support your answer?

Both Jacob and Joseph seem to be reliving old and familiar patterns of favoritism and exclusivity; of all Jacob's grandchildren only Joseph's sons receive his blessing, which we still invoke liturgically to this day. What have Jacob and Joseph learned about family dynamics? Does this sustained demonstration of paternal favoritism point to a more profound biblical message or motif?

What responsibility do grandparents have in the religious education and spiritual growth of their children's children? How might grandparents most constructively and effectively participate in this process? What are the possibilities and limitations of this grandparental role?

Robert Alter points out that Jacob's blessing is a sweeping historical retrospective, moving from the most recent events (Jacob's own experiences) to more distant memories (Abraham and Isaac) to the primordial (creation). Why does Jacob invoke such a grand perspective in blessing his grandsons? (Compare this blessing to the sheva berachot – the seven blessings recited under the chuppah – which also allude to the history of Israel and the Torah's creation narrative).

Keeping in mind Rabbi Hertzberg's description of the motivation behind writing, as well as Andy Rooney's insightful quip, what historical events – and what aspirations for the future – would you include in a final blessing to your grandchildren?

Theme #2: "That's a wrap!"

"Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. It required forty days, for that is the full period of embalming." (Genesis 50:2-3)

Derash: Study

"Joseph's emotional outburst and his embracing of the corpse reflects Egyptianized views of death and the dead body. Joseph summons his servants – not just any servants, but the physicians – and commands them to embalm his father. The juxtaposition of Joseph's embracing the corpse and his tears of loss with his order to bring healers certainly raises the possibility that Joseph, filled with grief, wanted the body preserved and, as the Egyptians believed, kept ready for reanimation." (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom)

"In Egypt, as the Torah explicitly points out, the dead are embalmed, mummified and placed in a coffin or sarcophagus to be preserved. As illustrated by the Hebrew word for Egypt (Mitzrayim), which is connected to the root word tzar, meaning narrow, Egypt was a society of narrowness, of restriction and oppression, of slavery, death and abuse. So too, Egypt's burial practice was one of restriction, sealing off, preservation and narrowness. In contrast, in a Jewish burial, the body must be free to return to the ground. This is especially true in Israel, the final burial place of both Jacob and Joseph, where the beloved's body is returned to the ground without a coffin, wrapped only in a simple white shroud. Here, the bones and essence of a person are not confined, but liberated to return to the source from whence they came… The narrowness of Mitzrayim is contrasted with the openness, liberation and transformation of Israel." (Rabbi James Jabobson-Maisels)

"Joseph, too, was embalmed at death (v. 26). Such a practice is never again referred to in the Bible. It is well known that mummification was bound up with the Egyptian worship of Osiris and conceptions of the afterlife. The embalming of Jacob and Joseph, however, was a purely practical measure, for Jacob is to be buried far from his place of death, and Joseph is to be reinterred many years later." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"Expert embalmers began practicing their craft along the Nile at least 4,500 years ago, preserving select members of the royal family. One early client was Queen Heteferes, whose famous son, Khufu, built the Great Pyramid at Giza. So enamored were Khufu's successors with mummification that they tried to reserve the privilege for themselves and their families. As pharaohs, they were presumed to be living gods, and perhaps they wished to keep up appearances as long as possible. A ruling king could not easily claim divinity as his birthright, after all, if it became known that his father and ancestors were simply moldering piles of bones like the kin of everyone else." (Heather Pringle, The Mummy Congress)

Questions for Discussion

Dr. Leon Kass refers to Joseph's ordered embalming of Jacob as a "countercultural act." This detail of Jacob's funerary rites is, indeed, jarring to modern Jews, long accustomed to viewing the preservation of human remains as forbidden. What is the purpose of Joseph's instructions to the court physicians? Was he simply concerned with the practical issue of transporting Jacob's remains back to his ancestral tomb, as Etz Hayim somewhat uncritically and apologetically asserts? Had Joseph embraced an Egyptian religious perspective on death and the afterlife? Was he bound by Egyptian social norms and practices as a matter of political expediency? Was he honoring his father – quite literally – in royal style?

Other than accompanying (and carrying) their father's body to its final resting place, Joseph's brothers seem completely uninvolved in Jacob's funeral arrangements. They do not react to his death or eulogize him, nor are they consulted about the embalming and burial. How does this omission function within the greater Joseph narrative?

Rabbi Jacobson-Maisels views Egyptian funerary rituals as an expression of that despotic nation's pattern of restriction, its system of totalitarian control. Heather Pringle discusses the origins of Egyptian mummification as a function of that society's social stratification. What are the core values expressed by the traditional Jewish approach to death, burial, and mourning? What practices and mores of the majority culture have Jews embraced concerning death and grief? Which have we actively rejected?

Jacob had buried Rachel where she died, just south of Jerusalem, not far from Bethlehem, rather than transport her remains to the cave of Machpelah. Why was it so important to Jacob to be buried in the family tomb rather than in Egypt? If it was simply a matter of interment in the Promised Land, why did he not instruct Joseph to bury him next to his beloved Rachel, who also was Joseph's mother?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Describing the Torah reading on Simchat Torah, when every worshipper is honored with an aliyah, in his Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Rabbi Isaac Klein concludes: "For the last aliyah all the children are called up (Levush, O.H. 669:1). This honor is usually given to one of the distinguished worshippers, who spreads his tallit like a canopy under which the children stand and recite the blessings. After the second benediction, the congregation recites the blessing which Jacob gave to his grandchildren, the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:15-16; Rama on O.H. 669)."

Historical Note

In parashat Vayechi, read on January 7, 2012, Jacob delivers personalized blessings and his final message to his sons: "And Jacob called his sons and said, 'Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come'" (Genesis 49:1). On January 7, 1929, the similarly forward-looking Buck Rogers – the first science fiction comic strip – premiered.

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