Tied To The Land

Both Jacob and Joseph understood the importance of imbuing their descendants with a commitment to the Land of Israel.

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Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Parashat 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.

Ensuring Continuity

The parashah'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.

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Rabbi David Ariel-Joel

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel is an associate rabbi at The Temple in Louisville, KY. He was was associate director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and directed its Beit Midrash (house of study) program in Jerusalem. A graduate of the Israel rabbinical program of the Hebrew Union College, he also holds an MA in Jewish philosophy from the Hebrew University.