- Written by Daniel Sandground
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As we learnt in Parashas Vayeishev, Yaakov was unable to "שב" (literally translates as sit but means rest here) because as was explained over there, he had not yet completed his mission in life. This week we see that Yaakov did get to live-out his final years in peace with the Torah stating that, “Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years”. We are taught that, from the Torah’s use of the term "ויחי" (lived), rather than the more common "ויגר" (sojourned), we infer that it is speaking of Yaakov’s quality of life in Egypt. In the plain sense, the implication is that after a lifetime of difficulty, 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 earlier on 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), so with that in mind, if you calculate the gamatria of the first word of this week's sedra, "ויחי" we find that it actual equals 34 and is therefore a remez to the amount of peaceful years that Yaakov had in his lifetime; (Calculation: ו = 6, י = 10, ח = 8, י = 10).
The Torah informs us that Yaakov’s primary concern when he realised that the time of his death was approaching was to make sure that he wasn’t buried in Egypt. Rashi brings down several reasons for this anxiety which caused him to make Yoseph take an oath that he would fulfil such a request. The first of these which is given over is that he knew through ruach hakodesh that the soil of Egypt would one day be plagued with lice (Shemos 8:12) which would crawl under his body causing discomfort, if it were to be buried in Egypt. Yaakov was also concerned that those who are buried outside of Eretz Yisrael will not come to life at the time of techias ha'matsim until they go through a process whereby their bodies roll through the earth to get there. The final rational given by Rashi for this strong request is that Yaakov did not want the Egyptians to make his tomb into a shrine for idol worship, which they were strongly inclined towards. An addition reason brought down by the mefarshim is taught with regards to Yaakov's concerns that he did not want the future nation of Israel to have any connection to Egypt whatsoever when they would leave the land years later. By being buried in Eretz Yisrael he would therefore establish the principle that only this land was their heritage, no matter how successful or comfortable they might be in another land. We also see by Yoseph that his bones were carried out of Egypt by Moshe during the exodus which comes to support this view being brought down by Yaakov's decision that we have no inherent connection to any land other than Eretz Yisrael. It is described in the Torah at the end of last week’s sedra, how the nation was already “acquiring property” and “were fruitful and multiplied greatly” [both 47:27], 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 therefore extremely necessary for Yaakov (and later Moshe through the removal of Yoseph's bones) to demonstrate in an impressive manner that Eretz Yisrael, and not Egypt or future exile lands, was the Jewish nation's true home.
Before Yaakov died the Torah describes how he gave blessings to all of his sons and to Yoseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The theme of blessings occupies a prominent place in the Torah and in particular, the book of Bereishis. Rashi brings down that originally it was Avraham who was given the power to bless and this ability was passed down through his offspring with the righteous amongst them 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 a blessing. 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 from the Torah that Yaakov blessed the tribes individually, each in line with its own character and ability. Throughout these blessings we also see that each tribe had its own unique mission it was to undertake which would contribute to the national mission of serving Hashem. Spread throughout the blessings bestowed upon the tribes are glimpses of prophecy on future events and from here we also see incredibly accurate descriptions of what roles the tribes of Israel would play in the future. The greatest mark of Yoseph’s success in Egypt was the fact that his sons, born on foreign soil, were worthy of such a lofty status in the future Jewish nation with them being promoted to fully fledged tribes as if they were Yaakov’s own sons. Ephraim and Manasseh were also the first 'sons' to receive his blessing which the Torah describes… “By you shall Israel bless saying 'May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh'” [48:20]. Through this blessing 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 Shabbos 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 today, have ample cause to hope that their children show comparable commitment to their heritage in such testing environments. Following the blessing of Reuven and Shimon, Yehudah, the tribe which were to become the royal line within the nation, received a blessing of “your brothers shall acknowledge (you)” [49:8]. The Midrash brings down that 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 today! 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. Sforno teaches an additional reason why we call ourselves 'Jews', which is due to the fact that the word יהודה/Yehudah contains the letters of Hashem’s name as well as the roots for the words ‘thankfulness’ and ‘praise’. Chiddush HaRim adds on that point that Jews have come to be called Yehudim, after Yehudah, because it is a fundamental Jewish characteristic to always be grateful to Hashem.
According to the 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 were granted permission to go and bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, they requested to take everyone along the burial procession. The Torah describes, however, how Pharaoh would not permit this and used this opportunity to show them that they were not free agents, as it states… “only their young children… did they leave in the land of Goshen”. The mefarshim therefore describes how Pharaoh's refusal to let the whole of the Jewish nation go and bury their father was subconsciously giving us a peek into the future of what he had planned for us following the death of Yoseph.
Next week we start the book of Shemos in which all of those evil plans which Pharaoh had in store will be revealed! I wish everyone a good Shabbos and a successful week ahead.
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)