This week we read the concluding parasha of the book of Bereishis, Vayechi which translates as ‘lived’. At face value this seems to be an ironic title for a sedra which focuses on the deaths of both Yaakov and Yoseph, we also find this occurrence in Parasha ‘Chayei (the life of) Sarah’ where the focal point of that sedra was the death of Sarah, one of our matriarchs. So what is the reason for this?... It is written by Ein Ayah that… ‘the main connection of the tzaddik’s life is to things that are loftier than that which is connected to the body and that which occurs to it, and these lofty things are the mainstay of his life while he is alive. Since these things do not cease with death but add luster, the tzaddik is considered alive even after he has physically died’. This also works in the other direction with a rasha (a wicked person) considered to be dead even when he is alive. When the Torah actually describes Yaakov’s death it uses the word ויגוע (expired) rather than the usual way to describe dieing as מת which is the common terminology used in the Torah… this naturally caused a bit of a cu-fuffle amongst the commentators! Rabbi Yochanan maintained that Yaakov did not die, even though the Torah relates that he was mourned, embalmed and buried, he quotes a source from the book of Jeremiah which implies that just as his descendants live on, so to does Yaakov. Tosafos also notes there that the Torah does not explicitly say that he died, as it does of the passing of Avraham and Yitzhak. Most commentators however understand this statement to imply that Yaakov lives on spiritually because his offspring maintain his heritage. I personally think Yaakov still lives in a council flat in Peckham (the Americans won’t get that one).
As we all remember from Parashas Vayeishev, Yaakov was unable to שב/shev (literally sit but means rest here) because his mission was not complete yet. This week we see that Yaakov did get to live out his final years peacefully as the Torah states ‘Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years’. By the Torah’s use of the term ויחי (lived), rather than ויגר (sojourned), we infer that the Torah is speaking of Yaakov’s quality of life in Egypt. In the plain sense, the implication is that after a lifetime of difficulty (Esav not being the nicest of brothers, Lavan’s conniving and Yoseph’s disappearance) Yaakov was finally able to enjoy the tranquillity and peace he longed for. We also learn from this possuk that Yaakov had seventeen peaceful years at the end of his life, and we learnt early in the Torah that he also has seventeen peaceful years at the beginning of his life (up until he had to flee from his brother)… If you take the gamatria of the word ויחי we find that…
ו = 6 י = 10 ח = 8 י = 10
…all adds up to 34… the amount of peaceful years Yaakov had in his life time.
Yaakov’s first concern when he realised the time of his death was approaching was to make sure he wasn’t buried in Egypt. He had several reasons for his anxiety… firstly he knew through prophecy that the soil of Egypt would one day be plagued with lice (Shemos 8:12) which would be unpleasant for his body if it were buried in Egypt. Yaakov was also concerned that those who are buried outside of Eretz Yisrael will not come to life at the Resurrection until they go through the process of their bodies rolling through the earth to get there (Don’t ask me more on this, it’s brought down from Kabalistic writings and sounds just as peculiar to me as it does to you- which is why we don’t study Kaballah until we have a firm understanding of the rest of Torah, unless your Madonna of course!). Rashi claims that Yaakov did not want the Egyptians to make his tomb into a shrine for idol worship, which they were strongly inclined towards. The final reason given is that he did not want the future nation of Israel to have any connection to Egypt whatsoever when they were to leave the land years later, by being buried in Eretz Yisrael he would establish the principle that only this land was their heritage, no matter how successful or comfortable they might be in some other land. As we see from last week’s sedra in the final verse of the Parasha, it describes how the nation was already acquiring property and ‘they were fruitful and multiplied’, implying that Yaakov could already see his offspring growing an attachment to Egypt. As the Meshach Chochmah famously wrote of assimilated Jews of the nineteenth century; “they substituted Berlin for Jerusalem”… so it was necessary for Yaakov to demonstrate in an impressive manner that Eretz Yisrael and not Egypt or future exile lands was their true home.
It is said that each of the Patriarchs was a role model for their future descendants, for example, Avraham was the epitome of chesed (kindness)… Yitzhak, self sacrifice (The Akeidah)… Yoseph, self restraint (in the Potiphar incident)… for Yaakov, it is said that he symbolised Torah and Emes (Truth), and his closing years were a living lesson that Jews can survive and even thrive in exile if they maintain their allegiance to these ideals which he represented. In Yaakov’s request that he not be buried in Egypt he asks Yoseph ‘to do kindness and truth with [him]’… from this we can learn that the most sincere kindness is found when dealing with the dead as Rashi points out that the beneficiary will never be able to return the favour, this is why the burial of the dead is such a massive mitzvah in Judaism.
Before Yaakov dies he gives blessings to all his sons and Yoseph’s two sons Ephraim and Manasseh. The theme of blessings occupy a prominent place in the Torah and in particular, Bereishis. Originally it was Avraham who was given the power to bless (Rashi) and this ability was passed down with the righteous able to confer a blessing by G-d given privilege. Yaakov himself famously deceived his father in order to receive his blessing, which gives us some insight into the valuable power of these ‘forces’ a blessing can create. In the case of Yaakov giving blessings we see that his progeny were about to journey on the historic task of constituting an independent Jewish nation, he therefore wanted to bestow upon them a Divine blessing for success in this hugely significant responsibility. We see that Yaakov blesses the tribes individually, each in line with its own character and ability. Throughout these blessings we see that each tribe has its own unique mission it was to undertake, far from breeding disunity, however, their separate missions were to bring them together… like the spokes of a wheel, though they point in different directions, they are all part of the same wheel and essential to its function. So to the tribes of Israel would have different roles (for example priesthood, royalty, scholarship, commerce, defence etc.) but all would contribute to the national mission of serving G-d.
Spread throughout these blessings are glimpses of prophecy on future events and incredibly accurate descriptions of what roles the tribes of Israel will play. If I were to go through each tribe, you would see the remarkable way these blessings played out to influence future events but that is beyond the depth of this Dvar Torah so I urge you to read up on commentaries on them… BUT do not fret, we shall discuss a few of them…
The greatest mark of Yoseph’s success in Egypt was that his sons, born on foreign soil, were worthy of such a lofty status in the future Jewish nation (they were promoted to fully fledged tribes as if they were Yaakov’s own sons). Ephraim and Manasseh were the first to receive his blessing which was so… ‘By you shall Israel bless saying “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”’… thus Yaakov assured Yoseph that for all time Jewish parents would remember that he was the father of two sons of full-fledged tribal fathers. This would in turn cause parents to bless their children that they would rise to such heights, hence why we bless our sons in their names at the Shabbas table. Another reason brought down as to why we bless according to them is that they demonstrated great strength to maintain their Yidishchite in the face of much hostility and temptation in Egypt. Jewish parents, especially in exile, have ample cause to hope that their children show comparable commitment to their heritage.
Yehudah, the tribe which were to become the royal line within the nation, received a blessing by which… “your brothers shall acknowledge [you]”… says the Midrash, the tribe of Yehudah would become so admired by Israel that they will not say that “I am a Reuvenite or a Shimonite” but “I am a Yehudi!”, hence why we call ourselves Jews! Thus we find later on that even Mordechai (in the book of Esther) was known as a Yehudi when he was really from the tribe of Binyamin. Another reason why we call ourselves Jewish is that the word יהודה/Yehudah contains the letters of Hashem’s name as well as the root for the words ‘thankfulness’ and ‘praise’ (Sforno). Chiddush HaRim in fact notes that Jews have come to be called Yehudim, after Judah, because it is a Jewish characteristic to always be grateful to Hashem. Directly after Yehudah, Yaakov bestows blessings on to Zevulun and Yissachar... why does he suddenly change the order after blessing the brothers in order or their age? Rashi notes that the reason Zevulun was blessed before his older brother Yissachar was because Yissachar’s torah learning was only made possible by Zevulun, whose engagement in commerce (they were sea-faring merchants due to their territory between the Mediterranean Sea and Sea of Kinereth) supported them. We learn from this the importance of supporting Torah learning, and how its significance can even outweigh the learning itself, so much so Zevulun received his blessing before his older brother. Sforno elaborates on this point that one cannot engage in Torah study without material necessities, as the Sages said, ‘If there is no flour, there is no Torah’ (in Pirkei Avos). If you have the necessities, however, there are no excuses!
According to Tur, the spiritual exile of the Jewish people started when Yaakov died, the physical one, however, did not commence until all his sons had passed away. Towards the end of the sedra, we see signs of future Egyptian bondage as soon as Yaakov passes away. Although Yoseph and his brothers are granted permission to go and bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, they did in fact want to take everyone along the burial procession… but Pharaoh would not permit it, as if to show them that they were not free agents, as it states in the Torah… “only their young children… did they leave in the land of Goshen”. By refusing to let the whole of the Jewish nation go and bury their father, Pharaoh was subconsciously giving us a peek into the future of what he had planned for us.
Next week we start our bondage in Egypt in the book of Shemos! I wish everyone a good Shabbas and I think that it is appropriate to bless you all with good health, success and most importantly Torah in everything you do!
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)