Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
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Parshat Vayehi, which concludes the Book of Genesis, deals with Jacob’s last days, his testament to his sons, and the death and burial of both Jacob and Joseph. Thus, this is a parashah of endings, of the closing of narrative cycles and patriarchal histories. The death of Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, signals the end of the stories of the forefathers and foremothers, before the time when the Jews became a people.
The parshah’s second verse begins: “And the day drew near that Israel must die…” (Genesis 47:29). Suddenly, it’s not the death of “Jacob” that concerns us, but that of “Israel.” But knowing how the Torah’s narrative unfolds, we realize that we’re not dealing with endings, but rather with beginnings. The focus in Parashat Vayehi and at the beginning of the next portion, Sh’mot, is the people’s religious and social continuity as they make a transition to a new state.
With the death of Jacob, and subsequent death of Joseph, there’s the danger that this will be the end of the people of Israel. Fortunately, before he dies, Jacob concerns himself intimately with the future of his children and grandchildren. As he senses his impending end, Jacob requests that the two sons of Joseph, Menasseh and Ephraim, be brought to him so that he can bless them.
It’s noteworthy that Jacob doesn’t bless his son, but rather his grandsons. This emphasizes that the blessing’s importance doesn’t flow from the natural desire of a father to bless a son (as Isaac blessed Jacob), but that its purpose is related to the continuation of the patriarchal dynasty, and of Joseph’s tribe in particular, as well as the firm establishment of the entire people.
Guidance Through Blessings and Burial
Like his father Isaac, Jacob grants the preferred blessing, which should go to the older son (the bechor), to the younger one. But unlike Isaac, he does this knowingly! He acts out of a concern for the future of the people, not because he favors one child over another.
The essence of Jacob’s concern for the well-being of the people is found in another request he makes of Joseph: “Do not bury me in Egypt” (Genesis 47:29). Jacob fears that the people Israel won’t be able to develop spiritually and culturally in exile. He feels that if they don’t take significant steps that look beyond Egypt, then their ability to fulfill the divine promise to Jacob will end.
Jacob’s request to Joseph, “Do not bury me in Egypt” came amidst material abundance, as the seven years of famine had ended. He understood that, despite their wealth and comfort, their life in Egypt would be one of spiritual lethargy among the fleshpots in which he and his sons were stuck, a life that would mean spiritual death for his descendants.
Israel is Our Destiny
Jacob knew that he wasn’t making an easy request in asking Joseph to bring his dead body to Israel for burial. But he decided to move his sons and grandsons into understanding that Israel, not Egypt, was their home. After all, Jacob had been born in Israel, not Goshen. In short, he was determined to try to turn his death into a new beginning for his children and grandchildren.
At the end of the portion, we read about Joseph’s death. Joseph, who rose to greatness in Egypt and who had internalized much of its culture, “took an oath of the children of Israel, saying ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence'” (Genesis 50:25). The parashah thus ends with Joseph also commanding the children of Israel to swear to take his bones to the Land of Israel.
Joseph’s greatness flows from the knowledge that he is acting in service of a destiny greater than himself. Egypt, the place that was so much a part of him, still ultimately was exile. What was important to him was the future of his people, not its past. He too had to make it clear to the people that its future wasn’t in Egypt.
Genesis ends with the deaths of two great leaders of the Jewish people, leaders who knew how to turn their endings into a furtherance of the dream of redemption in Canaan. Jacob and Joseph desired, and succeeded, in commanding the children of Israel to aspire to life as a people committed to and based in its land.