Feeling The Presence Of God

God's presence at Jacob's deathbed teaches us that our reactions to the situations in which we find ourselves determine our spiritual perceptions.

Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

Jacob and all his descendants are reunited in Egypt under Joseph’s protection. Jacob is close to death, so he blesses Joseph’s two children as his own, reversing his hands so that the younger is blessed in the manner of the older son. This time, however, there is no acrimony between brothers. Jacob calls all his sons to his deathbed and speaks a kind of ethical will and final blessing.

Jacob dies, and is taken by Joseph and the family to be buried in the Land of Israel. Thinking that Joseph may now take revenge, the brothers fear for their lives, but Joseph forgives them for selling him into slavery, reminding them that God has brought them to Egypt for a reason. Joseph dies, and asks to be taken up to Israel when the Israelite nation eventually leaves Egypt.

In Focus

“…and Yisrael bowed down upon the head of the bed.” (Genesis 47:31)


Jacob, here called Yisrael, feels that his end is near, and so makes Joseph swear that he will bring Jacob’s body back to the Land of Israel after his passing. After pressuring Joseph to make this oath, he bows down on or by his sickbed.


It’s not exactly clear why or to whom Jacob would bow after making Joseph swear his oath. One could say that Jacob was bowing to Joseph himself, who was like a king in Egypt, but some commentators say that ordinarily a parent would not humble themselves before a child. Perhaps it was a gesture of acceptance; Jacob had to accept both his impending death and the fact that only Joseph had the power to carry out his desire to be buried in the Land of Israel.

Rashi [a medieval Torah commentator] says that Jacob was not bowing to Joseph, but to God:

He [Jacob] turned himself in the direction of the Divine Presence [Shechina]. From this passage [the sages] have said that the Shechina is above the head of one who is sick.

Rashi’s midrash is based on statements found in the Talmud, and it’s easy to see how this teaching would bring strength and comfort to the sick or dying. It is a beautiful theology, imagining the Presence of God “hovering” (as it were) over someone who is suffering.

This image of God helps us to understand that God can be present with us in sad or tragic times, even if “miracles” don’t seem to be forthcoming. In this case, Rashi imagines Jacob bowing out of humility before the Holy One, Whom Jacob perceived as present, near his sickbed. (Actually, in another place Rashi seems to imply that Jacob could have indeed been bowing to Joseph, but that’s for a different day.)

Commenting on this midrash, the Hasidic master Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav offers a psychological insight into Rashi’s midrash:

The reason for this is that even a very evil person has thoughts of t’shuvah in this time [i.e., upon a sickbed]. (Source: Itturei Torah).

Teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but it comes from the word meaning “turn,” or “return.” Teshuvah involves introspection and “soul-accounting,” and making amends for whatever wrongs we have caused.

Thus R. Nahman is saying that just being sick, in itself, doesn’t bring the Shechina, but rather that God is felt to be Present when a human being is asking hard questions about life, looking deeply into his or her own soul and struggling to do the right thing. It’s the wrestling with conscience that opens up this level of spirituality, not the illness, which just gives us a chance to do the thinking.

Now, please understand, when a text says that God, or the Shechina, is present, it doesn’t mean that God is absent or missing at other times –I believe these texts are talking about what we perceive and feel. Sometimes we feel that God is closer, and sometimes farther away.

What we learn from R. Nachman is that our spiritual perception is not determined by the fact of external circumstances that, but rather how we react to our situation. “Turning” our hearts is a precondition to feeling the presence of the sacred; without openness, inwardness and humility, the Divine Presence might be close indeed, but we’d never notice.

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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