September 19, 2019 |

Parshat Vayechi: Walkthrough

Loyalty to the literal text, with a modern voice [All editorializing in brackets]

So Jacob lived in Egypt 17 years, having lived a total of 147 years.

In his dying days, he called his son Joseph, to ask him one favor: “Do not bury me in Egypt. When I pass on, I’d like to be buried with my forefathers.” Joseph agreed, and promised to do so.

Shortly thereafter, Joseph is told that his father has taken ill. He takes his sons Menassah and Ephraim with him to see his father, who gathers his strength to sit up to greet them.

Jacob tells Joseph, “God appeared to me back at the start of my journeys, telling me that he would bless me, make me a great nation, and give me and my children this land. And you should know – your two sons who were born to you here will be equal under that promise, Menassah and Ephraim equally with Reuven and Shimon.

“And then Rachel died on me, just as I was getting close to Efrat, and I buried here there in Beit Lechem.” [almost feels like the sentimental musings of a man whose approaching senility going into autopilot of a story once it’s started]

And then Israel [Jacob] sees Joseph’s sons and asks “Who are these?” [Again, feels like the onset of dementia of some kind]

Joseph tells his father, “These are my sons, which God has given me.”

Jacob: “Bring them to me and I will bless them.”

Now Israel’s eyesight had gone due to age, but he brought them near and kissed and hugged them [Recall, Isaac had also been blind when this scene last happened decades earlier].

Jacob turned to Joseph: “You know, I never dreamed I’d ever see your face again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Joseph brought his sons forward, carefully positioning Menasseh (the elder) under Jacob’s right hand, and Ephraim (the younger) under Jacob’s left hand.

And yet Jacob crossed his hands, putting his right on Ephraim and his left on Menasseh.

And thus he blessed Joseph: “The God that my forefathers Avraham and Isaac walked with, the shepherd who has guided me from the beginning until this very day, the Angel who saves me from all evil – He should bless these boys, and they should be associated with my name and the names of my fathers Avraham and Isaac, and become multitudinous in the land.”

Now Joseph saw that Jacob had put his right hand on Ephraim, which he did not like. He tried to move his father’s hand, saying “No father, THIS one is the elder.” But his father objected, saying “I know – Menasseh will be great, but his younger brother will be greater.” [We have literally heard this in every generation since Avraham.]

And he concluded his blessing saying, “This is how the Israelites will bless their children in days to come, saying ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh’” (pointedly putting Ephraim’s name before Menasseh).

Then Israel turns to Joseph, saying “I will soon die, but God will return you to your fathers’ land. And I have given you an extra measure beyond your brothers, a measure that I conquered from the Amorites with my own military might.

Jacob calls his sons, saying “Gather round, so I can tell you what will be at the end of days.”

[Translator’s Note: The following are some of the most difficult passages to understand in the original, they remain so in translation. Reading commentaries is advised. But take notice of the overall tone for each brother. When in doubt I rely on Rashi’s pshat, and I omit verses that are almost unintelligible in the original.]

Reuven, you are my eldest, and are entitled to more than the others. But you will not take advantage of that right, since you desecrated my bed by sleeping with my wife. [recall the story of when Reuven slept with Bilhah, and the story concluded with “and Jacob heard…”]

Shimon and Levi, you are truly birds of a feather, full of treachery. I want nothing to do with them, for in their anger they killed men. Their damned anger is powerful – I would divide them and keep them apart as much as possible.

Judah, you will lead your brothers. You have risen like a crouching lion from the depths of the story of the tearing apart of my son – your tribe will remain intact for all eternity.

Zevulun will dwell on the shore, with the side of his land abutting Zidon [in Lebanon].

Issachar will be a hard worker, but he will appreciate good things when they come.

Dan will judge his people [play on “dan” which in Hebrew is to judge]. Dan will be like a snake on the road, which bites the heels of the horse such that the rider falls backward. God help me. [yes, it says that.]

Gad will be a platoon [play on “gedud” which in Hebrew is a platoon], and they will return safely.

Food that comes from Asher’s land will be rich, worthy of kings.

Naftali is like a messenger deer, sent with good news.

Joseph is a special son – they made his life miserable and yet he thrived. Though archers launched arrows at him, his bow returned them mightily. Your father’s God will help you and bless you, blessings of sustenance and fertility. Your father’s blessings are mightier than my parents’ – be a leader, Joseph, though you be above and separate from your brothers.

Benjamin is a predatory wolf, eating in the morning as he pleases, and distributing the spoils in the evening.

So these are the 12 tribes of Israel, and this is how he blessed them.

He commands them, saying, “I am about to die, bury me with my fathers in Ma’arat Hamachpelah, which Avraham bought from Efron the Hittite as a family burial ground. That is where they buried Avraham and his wife Sarah, that is where they buried Isaac and his wife Rivkah, and that is where I buried Leah.”

And as Jacob finished his last will and testament, he lay down in bed and passed.

Joseph falls on his father, weeping and kissing him. He commands the Egyptian doctors to embalm his father, and after 40 days (that’s how long it took for the embalming), Egypt mourns him for 70 days.

After the mourning period, Joseph asks Pharaoh for permission to fulfill his father’s dying wish to be buried in Canaan, and he is granted permission.

So Joseph and all the elders of Egypt, along with his brothers and entire family all go up to Canaan, leaving only the sheep and children in Goshen. They are a massive group of people, and they stop along the way for a seven day mourning period. In fact, the Canaanites saw this massive mourning procession, and said, “This must be a great mourning for Egypt,” and the place is still called “Egypt’s Mourning.”

His sons did everything they promised him, and they returned to Egypt.

But now the brothers were terrified, thinking that Joseph will finally take revenge on them for all that they had done to him.

They sent a message to Joseph, saying “Your father told us before he died, to tell you to forgive the terrible things we did to you,” and Joseph cried when he heard it.

Then the brothers themselves went and threw themselves at him, offering to be slaves.

Joseph stopped them: “Don’t worry – it is God’s place to judge you, not mine. You wanted to do something terrible to me, and here God made it for the best. Not to worry – I will take care of you and your families.”

So Joseph’s entire family settled in Egypt, and he lived 110 years, old enough to see his great grandchildren.

Joseph tells his brothers, “Soon I will die, and God will remember you someday, and take you out of this land to the land that he promised Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You must swear to me – when this happens, bring my bones with you.”

And so Joseph dies at 110 years old. He is embalmed and placed in a casket in Egypt.

[Thus the long journey which began with Avraham leaving everything he knew to go to Canaan ends – outside of Canaan. We have watched three generations struggle with the younger overtaking the older, threats of fratricide, favoritism, great wealth, treachery, incest, massive battles, famine, and divine wrath and intervention. But the blessing and promise persists in every generation: God will bless you, make you a large nation, help those who help you and curse those who oppose you, and while you may leave the land for decades or centuries at a time, it is your inheritance, and just as Joseph brought his father’s bones home, God promises that He will BRING YOU BACK to the land that was promised to Avraham. We will see that promise fulfilled in the book of Shmot, Exodus, starting next week.]


Jack Kustanowitz

Joined: July 15, 2007

Jack is an Internet professional living in Silver Spring, MD. He is a proud alum of the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ as well as Boston University, where he was active at BU Hillel.

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