Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
Jacob and all his sons and their families are now settled in Egypt with Joseph, who is the second-most powerful man in the Pharaoh’s kingdom.
Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years and he was 147 years old. Jacob (also called Israel) said to Joseph, “If I have found favor in your eyes, then swear to me that you will not bury me in Egypt, but with my fathers in Canaan.”
Joseph agreed, then later received word that his father was dying. Joseph took his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to see Jacob. Jacob sat up in bed, saying, “God, the All-Sufficing, appeared to me in the land of Canaan and blessed me. God said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and will multiply you, and I will let you become a community of nations and will give this land to your seed after you as an everlasting possession.”
Then Jacob added, “Now, bring your sons to me so that I may bless them. Your two sons, born before I came to Egypt, shall belong to me just like Reuben and Simeon. But the children whom you beget after them shall remain yours.”
Jacob could not see, so Joseph brought his sons close enough so his father could embrace them. Jacob said to Joseph, “I had not thought it possible that I would see your face, and now God has let me see even your seed.”
Joseph had his sons kneel before Jacob. Ephraim was to Jacob’s left and Manashe to Jacob’s right. Jacob then stretched out his right hand and placed it upon Ephraim’s head–though he was the younger–and his left hand was upon Menashe’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Menashe was the first-born.
He said, “The God before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, conducted themselves, the God Who has been my Shepherd for my existence until this day, the angel who has delivered me from all evil, bless the lads so that my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, may be called in them and that they may multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”
Jacob Gives Advice to His Sons
When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand upon Ephraim’s head, he moved it to Menashe’s. He said, “No father. This is the first-born, place your right hand upon his head.”
Jacob refused. “I know it, my son. He, too, will become a tribe. He, too, will be great but his younger brother will be greater than he and his seed will complete the nations.” He blessed them on that day saying, “May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe.” He put Ephraim before Menashe.
Later, Jacob gathered his sons. “I wish to tell you what will befall you in the aftermath of days. Listen: Reuben, you are my first-born, my strength and the first of my acquisitions, privileged in rank and power. But instability like water in you does not permit you this privilege, for you have mounted your father’s couch and profaned it.
“Shimeon and Levi are brothers, but instruments of violence are the means of acquiring gain. My will must not enter their council. A curse therefore upon their anger, for it is too cruel. I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.”
“Judah, you are the one; to you will your brothers do homage. Judah is like a lion. The scepter will not depart from Judah nor the law inscribing stylus from between his feet, until his sprout, seemingly the last and weakest, will come. Then it will be to him, the one of manly strength, that the nations, dulled with age, will fall.”
“Zebulun will dwell at a bay of seas. He will become a harbor for ships.”
“Yissakhar, a nimble beast of burden, rests between the rows of household vessels. He has given to pay the tribute of the tiller of the soil.”
“Dan will champion the right of his people as only one of the tribes of Israel can. Dan will become a serpent on the highway, which bits the charger’s heel so that the rider falls backward.”
“Gad, many a troop will drive into him like a wedge, but he will drive like a wedge into their heel. Through Asher his food will become rich and he will yield royal delights.”
“Naphtali, a gazelle-like messenger, delivers eloquent speeches.”
“Joseph was a noble, outstanding son. When they heaped bitter abuse upon him, he remained serene, already blessed from God. You will remain with the All-Sufficing Who will continue to bless you.”
“Benjamin will tear the wolf to pieces. He will eat a portion in the morning, but in the evening he will divide it as spoil.”
Jacob and Joseph Pass Away
These are the 12 tribes of Israel. After he blessed them, Jacob commanded them to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Leah were buried. Jacob dies and is gathered to his peoples.
Joseph commanded his servants and physicians to embalm his father. It took 40 days for embalming. The Egyptians wept for 70 days. Then, with Pharaoh’s permission, Joseph went with all his servants and elders to bury his father. When they came to Bramble Barn beyond the Jordan, they held a very great and impressive lamentation with a seven-day mourning period. The sons then buried Jacob as he requested.
With Jacob buried, the brothers worried that Joseph might hold a grudge against them and punish them for the evil done before. So they said to Joseph, “Our father said to please forgive the crimes of your brothers.”
The brothers then bowed low, saying, “Here we are your slaves.”
But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid. For am I in the place of God. Even if you meant to do evil, God meant it for good, in order to bring about what is at present, in order to keep a numerous nation alive. And now, do not be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” He comforted them and spoke to their hearts.
So Joseph lived in Egypt with his brothers and saw the third generation of Ephraim and Menashe. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am dying. And God will surely remember you again one day and bring you up from this land to the land which God swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Then Joseph made the brothers swear, “If God will remember you again one day, then you shall bring my bones up from this place.” Joseph died at one hundred and ten years old and they embalmed him. Then he was placed in a coffin in Egypt in accordance with his wish.
Parashat Vayechi Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think Jews still bless their sons on the Sabbath saying, “May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe?” What is so special about them? How does it relate to the sons blessed today? How do Jews bless their daughters today?
2. On his deathbed Jacob gathers his sons and tells each of them what is to become of them in the days to come. What do you think will become of you in the days to come? What do you think will become of your loved ones? Why is this your vision?
3. After Jacob dies, the brothers fear Joseph’s punishment for their previous sins. Joseph instead comforts his brothers and speaks to their hearts. How do you comfort someone and speak to their heart? How are you best comforted by someone else?
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family & Life!