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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayehi
December 14, 2013 – 11 Tevet 5774

Annual (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26): Etz Hayim p. 293; Hertz p. 180
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Jacob, nearing death, asks Joseph to bury him in Canaan, then later adopts and blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob then offers final words to his sons (some of them harsh, others filled with blessing. Jacob dies, and the brothers bury him in the Cave of Machpelah. The brothers fear, once again, that Joseph will take revenge on them for selling him into slavery years before. Joseph reassures them, once again, that God meant for things to happen the way they did. Joseph dies and is embalmed, with his brothers promising that he, too, would be buried in Canaan.

Theme #1: Honor to the Dead

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. 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: please do not bury me in Egypt…” (Genesis 47:28-29)

While we tend to picture that Jacob’s deathbed scene is filled with his sons by his side, a large amount of his final interactions take place only with Joseph and his sons present.

It is part of the nature of everything to draw near and to cleave itself to its root and its source. For this reason the time of death of the righteous ones is described as a “drawing near,” as if they had a desire to return to their root and to draw themselves near to their source. Our parents and their parents before them had a great yearning to be brought near to the Land of Israel, for there was the root and the source of where they were formed.” (Yad Yosef)

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 possibly result in harm or evil. (Ohel Ya’akov)

And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, [ shall carry up my bones from hence], and R. Hanina remarked: [There is here] an inner meaning. Joseph well knew himself to be a righteous man in every way, and, since the dead outside the Land will be revived, why did he trouble his brothers [with a journey of] four hundred parasangs? Because he might possibly be unworthy to [roll through] the cavities. (BT Ketubot 111a)

Questions for Discussion:

Yad Yosef reflects on a dying person’s desire to return to a place of origin, and Jacob’s request that he be buried in Canaan is no exception. Could it be that Joseph is inspired by his father’s request, enough that he later asks that he, too, be buried in Canaan? Why is there an emotional attachment to being buried in a specific place among people that we care about? Is it possible that it has something to do with the possibility of an afterlife? Because we wish for those who have passed away to be close together, as if they have not died at all? Because it is easier for survivors to visit?

Ohel Ya’akov reminds us that the dead can never repay us for kindnesses we give those who pass away, making helping with burial the ultimate mitzvah. Today, many people consider the act of shoveling earth onto a casket at a funeral to be a way of fulfilling that mitzvah. Is there a connection between how we treat the dead and how we treat the living? Can the mitzvah of burying the deal make us more cognizant of better ways to treat the living?

The Talmud claims that Joseph makes the journey to Jacob’s burial especially lengthy so that there is no doubt that Jacob would remain in Canaan. Might Joseph have had other motivations to make the journey longer for his brothers? Might he be motivated to teach them that they needed to treat Jacob with extra care as “payback” for deceiving him for so many years?

Theme #2: Grandchildren and Their Inheritance

Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. (Genesis 48:5)

All my lands, houses, and possessions … are to be divided equally between my three sons: Akibtashenni, Turrishenni, and Palteya. I also appoint my daughter, Ukkie, as legal guardian of the land, houses, and possessions of my sons. As long as Ukkie lives, my three sons shall honor her as mother of their households … If any of my three sons fails to obey Ukkie, then she may punish him in the same manner that she would her own son. No other son of mine shall inherit any of my lands, houses, or other possessions. (Last Will and Testament of Arippabni, son of Shilwa-Tesub, 19.17; quoted by Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels)

Joseph wanted to make sure that Ephraim and Mannaseh would be included in the covenantal promise that belonged to Jacob’s progeny. And as he stood in front of his father, clutching the arms of his two boys who were born in Egypt to an Egyptian mother, he saw his father place his sons on his knees and heard his father say: “Now your two sons shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Shimon” (Genesis 48:5, 12). Jacob had made Joseph’s two sons his own … and in so doing, bridged the chasm between the children of Rachel and Leah forever. … As [Jacob] kissed and embraced each of them, just as he had kissed and embraced his own brother Esau many years before, Joseph finally felt that he had come home. (Norman J. Cohen, Self, Struggle & Change)

Several commentators have attempted to explain why, of all the possible ego models, Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned by name in the blessing of children. … Ephraim and Manasseh, as the first ones born in exile, are symbols of Jewish survival in alien lands. And still others have suggested that Ephraim and Manasseh are mentioned by name because they are the very first set of brothers in the Hebrew Bible who get along with one another. (Lawrence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen, quoted in My People’s Prayer Book: Volume 7, Shabbat At Home, edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, pg. 62)

Questions for Discussion:

The Akkadian text from Old Testament Parallels is cited as an example of how, even in Ancient Near Eastern culture, there are examples of people who break the conventions of inheritance and give other relatives the special treatment usually reserved for the firstborn male. How does Jacob break custom in the blessings? How does he break this convention throughout his life? Does “rule-breaking” by our ancestors come to teach us about thinking independently in our lives?

Cohen says that Joseph feels somewhat separate from the rest of his family since his sons had grown up Egyptian, and that Jacob’s “adoption” of his sons allays those concerns. Could that be Jacob’s main motivation? What are effective ways to welcome people back into your family circle, even if they were not involved for many years?

Kushner and Polen cite Ephraim and Manasseh’s survival in a foreign land as one of the reasons why we bless our sons in their names. Would it make sense for those who live in the state of Israel, to consider citing other role models instead of/in addition to them?

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