"Our Patriarch Yaacov Never Died"
I. Defining Parashat Vayechi: the Story of Yaakov's Death
Rashi opens his commentary to our parasha by citing the observation of our Sages that no indentation appears in the Torah scroll at the point where Parashat Vayechi begins. The Torah identifies units of text by setting it apart from its preceding and following verses with empty space in the scroll. The opening verse of Parashat Vayechi, however, appears immediately following the final verse of Parashat Vayigash, with no empty space signaling the introduction of a new Scriptural unit. The Midrash thus describes this parasha as "setuma," or closed, as it has no "opening" in the Torah scroll. One view in the Midrash, as cited, explains this unique feature of Parashat Vayechi as follows: "Once Yaakov died, the eyes and hearts of Yisrael became closed as a result of the troubles of bondage." The "closed" introduction of Parashat Vayechi symbolizes the loss of hope that descended upon the Israelites in the aftermath of Yaakov's death, which occurs in this parasha. Other Midrashim offer different explanations. The Midrash Ha-bi'ur (cited in Torah Sheleima) suggests that the Torah wished "not to publicize the death of the tzadik [righteous person]." That is, the account of Yaakov's death should not occupy an independent textual unit; this parasha was therefore subsumed under the previous parasha. One explanation appearing in another Midrash, "Yalkut Ner Ha-sikhlim" (also cited in Torah Sheleima), suggests that this "closed" parasha represents the notion that "the day of death is concealed from every living thing." The "closing" of the parasha describing Yaakov's death alludes to the inaccessibility of information concerning death.
All these Midrashim reflect our Sages' assessment of this parasha: it is about the death of Yaakov Avinu. This single event constitutes the primary theme of Parashat Vayechi.
How ironic it is, then, that our tradition has always referred to this closing section of Sefer Bereishit as "Vayechi Yaakov" - "Yaakov lived." This immediately brings to mind the celebrated passage in the Talmud (Ta'anit 5b), "Yaakov Avinu lo met" - our patriarch Yaakov never died. Thus, the parasha of Yaakov's death is really about his life, that he "lived" even after he "died." But what does the Talmud mean when it claimed that our third patriarch never died?
The Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo Ben Aderet, leading halakhic authority in 13th century Spain) explains that Yaakov stands apart from his two predecessors in that all his children followed his example of piety and formed God's chosen nation. As both Avraham and Yitzchak begot undeserving children (Yishmael and Esav, respectively), the Rashba explains, "part of their progeny died." The piety of all twelve his sons testified to Yaakov's spiritual completeness, such that, spiritually speaking, he never "died." We can perhaps better understand this notion in light of the explanation offered by the Abarbanel (Portugal, Spain and Italy, 15th century). According to Abarbanel, Yaakov's eternal life is manifest in the fact that our nation forever bears his name: Benei Yisrael. We are the "children of Israel," not the "children of Avraham" or the "children of Yitzchak." In this sense, Yaakov never died. As Am Yisrael, which descends from the entirety of Yaakov's household, is eternal, so is Yaakov. Avraham and Yitzchak fathered children from whom other nations formed. Those nations, like all others, have since disappeared. Only Yaakov has earned eternal life through the eternal existence of all his progeny, Kenesset Yisrael. Quite appropriately, then, the parasha devoted to his death bears the title "Vayechi Yaakov" - "Yaakov lived."
The story of Yaakov's life, as told in Parshiyot Vayetze and Vayishlach, itself expresses this eternal quality. Threatened by his brother's promise of vengeance, Yaakov flees from Canaan to Charan, the region from where God had summoned his grandfather, Avraham, to Canaan, where he would build God's nation. We can easily imagine that Yaakov may have initially feared that his exile meant his exclusion from the covenant of Avraham. His exile from Canaan to Charan may have, in Yaakov's mind, represented the unraveling of the process undertaken by his grandfather; he returns to Charan for he will have no share in the destiny of Avraham's offspring. To counter these fears, presumably, God appears to Yaakov in the vision of the ladder and offers him reassurance: "… the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring… I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land" (28:13,15). Indeed, Yaakov endures exile and returns to Canaan, where God again confirms His promise to him (35:11-12). The story of Yaakov is thus the story of stubborn and resilient survival and return. Throughout Parashat Vayechi, Yaakov ensures that his offspring, currently situated in Egypt, will likewise retain their identity and desire to return to their homeland. Yaakov delivers several speeches in his final days, as recorded in our parasha, virtually all of them geared, in one way or another, towards ensuring that even after he departs the world, "Yaakov" does not die.
II. "Do Not Bury Me in Egypt"
Parashat Vayechi begins with Yaakov's request that Yosef bring his remains to Canaan for burial. More accurately, he requests that Yosef not bury him in Egypt: "Please perform for me kindness and truth: do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place" (47:29-30). In submitting his request, Yaakov does not even specify the Land of Canaan by name. Instead, he emphasizes his body's return from Egypt and final rest alongside his predecessors. He issues more specific instructions concerning his burial later in our parasha, just prior to his death (49:29-32). Whereas there he emphasizes his desire for burial in Me'arat Ha-machpelah, together with the other patriarchs and matriarchs, here he impresses upon Yosef the importance of his remains' return from Egypt.
This emphasis lends support to the view of Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch in his commentary on these verses. Rabbi Hirsch claims that Yaakov here does not submit a personal request, but rather one relating to his family's future and destiny. Having witnessed Benei Yisrael's prosperity and acquisition of property in Egypt, as described in the final words of Parashat Vayigash ("va-ye'achazu ba" - 47:27), Yaakov feared that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren may look upon Egypt as their permanent home, foregoing the covenant to Avraham in exchange for the luxuries of Egypt. (Recall that the bondage had yet to begin; even after freedom from slavery, there were those among Benei Yisrael who still preferred life in Egypt over relocating in Canaan.) Yaakov therefore urges Yosef to bury him outside of Egypt in the burial site of Avraham and Yitzchak, thereby impressing upon his descendants their foreign status among the Egyptians.
Textual parallels between Yaakov's command to Yosef and an earlier order issued by Avraham strengthen this approach. In Parashat Chayei-Sara, Avraham summons his servant and bids him to "place your hand under my thigh" (24:2), just as Yaakov orders Yosef in our parasha (47:29). Furthermore, Yaakov describes his requests as "chesed ve-emet" - literally, "kindness of truth," the same expression used twice by Avraham's servant in reference to his mission (24:27, 49). Avraham has his servant promise that he will neither bring Yitzchak to Charan to find a wife nor select a woman from the local population, but rather bring the girl to Canaan. Clearly, Avraham's order involved the destiny of God's nation which was to settle and establish itself specifically in Eretz Canaan to stand in opposition to the corrupt, pagan lifestyle that had become predominant. Here, too, Yaakov charges Yosef with a task vital for the nation's preservation in Egypt: to ensure their emotional attachment to the land of their patriarchs, even during their stay in Egypt.
Yosef's placing his hand under Yaakov's thigh may bear particular relevance with regard to this theme. While this ritual is viewed by most commentators as an expression of an oath, Rabbenu Yosef Bekhor Shor (one of the Tosafists, 13th century) interprets it as a sign of subjugation. A servant will place his hand under his master's thigh to demonstrate total obedience and subservience. The Ramban and Seforno, among others, write that Yaakov has his son vow to carry his remains to Canaan in order to ensure that the Egyptian government will grant Yosef permission to leave. (See also Rashi, 50:6.) This perhaps sheds light as well on the need for Yosef to place his hand under Yaakov's thigh as a pledge of subservience. Yaakov wanted Yosef to demonstrate his ultimate loyalty to his family heritage, a loyalty that takes precedence over his allegiance to Pharaoh. The royal signet ring on the finger of "Tzofnat Pane'ach" (Yosef's Egyptian name - 41:45) mustn't undermine Yosef's fidelity to Yaakov. This, too, sent a powerful message to the Israelites: even in exile, and even during the period of bondage, they must direct their allegiance to their ancestors and heritage.
III. "Efrayim and Menashe Shall be to Me Like Reuven and Shimon!"
In his next meeting with Yosef, Yaakov awards him the bekhora, or privileges of the firstborn. As we know from later in our parasha, in Yaakov's chiding of Reuven (49:3-4), and, more explicitly, much later in Tanakh - Divrei Hayamim I 5:1, Yaakov stripped his firstborn of these privileges as a result of his sin with Bilha (see Bereishit 35:22). The bekhora was instead transferred to Yosef, such that his two sons, Menashe and Efrayim, would form two, independent tribes within the Israelite people: "Efrayim and Menashe shall be to me like Reuven and Shimon" (48:5). This assignment of the birthright, and its consequences concerning the status of Efrayim and Menashe, give rise to a striking irony, one which Yaakov appears to emphasize in the beginning of the aforementioned verse: "Now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine." Twice noting the foreign land in which Efrayim and Menashe were born and raised, Yaakov seems sensitive to the peculiarity of the equation he draws between the two Egyptian children and their Hebrew uncles. These two, who grew in the only "Jewish" household in the country, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Yaakov's children and their families, visitors from Canaan, as tribes of God's nation.
This may perhaps help explain Yaakov's introduction to the conferral of the bekhora to Yosef: "E-l Sha-ddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, 'I will make you fertile and numerous… and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession" (48:3-4). Of what relevance is this blessing to Yaakov's current meeting with Yosef? A closer look at the original blessing to which Yaakov refers may provide the answer. God bestows this blessing upon Yaakov in Parashat Vayishlach, when Yaakov returns to Canaan from exile (35:11-12). Note how the Torah there introduces this prophecy: "God appeared again to Yaakov on his arrival from Padan Aram, and He blessed him" (35:9). The verse stresses that God appeared to Yaakov "again," just as He had some twenty years earlier, when he first departed from Canaan. Despite his extended stay in exile, Yaakov nevertheless retained his rights to God's blessing to Avraham that God bestowed upon Yaakov when he fled Canaan. Yaakov invokes this particular blessing, granted to him as he returned from Charan, as he prepares to accord tribal status to Yosef's sons. Just as he had himself earned inclusion in the covenant despite his temporary banishment from Canaan, so will Yosef's children now find their place within the Israelite people, regardless of where they were born and raised. Yaakov prays that the "angel who redeemed me from all harm will bless the lads" (48:16). This "angel" likely refers to the angel who appeared to Yaakov in a dream during his term of service for Lavan and ordered him back to Canaan (31:11-13). This same angel who protected Yaakov from Lavan and Esav and ensured his safe return to Canaan, will likewise bestow his blessing upon Yosef's Egyptian-born children, that they shall become fully acclimated within the Israelite nation despite the geographic and cultural barrier that stands between them.
In his blessings to his two grandchildren, then, Yaakov once again expresses the eternal power of this nation that is to form, its ability to take shape and establish its identity even in the hostile conditions of exile.
IV. "That Which Will Befall You in Days to Come"
After this meeting with Yosef, Yaakov then assembles all his sons for perhaps the most prominent feature of this parasha, certainly the one for which the parasha is best known. Yaakov addresses each son individually, presenting what has become known as "Yaakov's blessings." He introduces his presentation by summoning his children to hear "that which will befall you in the end of days" (49:1). Rashi adopts the view of the Midrash that Yaakov here prepared to disclose information concerning the ultimate redemption, but the sudden loss of his prophetic powers prevented him from doing so. Here therefore decides instead to bless his children. What follows, then, is a father's wishes for his children, rather than a prophecy concerning their future. Many other commentators, however, (including the Radak, Chizkuni, Abarbanel and the Netziv) explain that Yaakov does, in fact, tell his children about "days to come." When were these "days," and why does Yaakov describe them to his sons? The Chizkuni and Radak claim that Yaakov refers here to the period after the exile, when Benei Yisrael settle in their land, an interpretation implied by the Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) and explicitly adopted more recently by the Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Russia, 19th century). (Other commentators, such as the Ramban and Seforno, understand "days to come" to refer to the messianic era.)
Thus, some two centuries before this information will bear practical relevance, Yaakov foretells the destiny of each tribe, which role it will play as Benei Yisrael establishes its nation in the land of Canaan. He again emphasizes that the nation's destiny awaits them in Canaan, not in Egypt.
"Yaakov finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed…" (49:33). At first glance, it would appear that these "instructions" refer to the preceding verses, in which Yaakov reiterates his request regarding his burial in Chevron. The Netziv, however, claims that Yaakov here issues several final orders to his children. Though the Netziv does not specify, we may speculate that Yaakov advises his sons with regard to practical matters concerning their lives in Egypt, information particularly relevant as the period of bondage had nearly set in. Significantly, the Torah chooses to record only his charge relevant to the nation's settlement in the Land of Israel. This prophecy, rather than the more immediately pertinent guidance, dominates Yaakov's closing address to his family, as it impresses upon them the impermanence of their stay in Egypt.
V. "What if Yosef Despises Us?"
"When Yosef's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'What if Yosef despises us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!'" (50:15). This section marks the final reconciliation between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef had accused them of spying, held them as prisoners, framed them with theft, and planted his royal goblet in their luggage. He revealed to them his true identity only after hearing Yehuda's appeal for the viceroy's compassion for their elderly father who would surely die should Binyamin not return home with his brothers. The brothers may have suspected that Yosef's change of heart resulted only from his concern for Yaakov's well being. After Yaakov's death, they feared, Yosef will seize the opportunity to resume his campaign of vengeance against them. They beg his forgiveness, and he offers them his consolation and reassurance.
This dialogue, which, in effect, brings Sefer Bereishit to a close, finalizes once and for all the process of "bechira," or selection, that runs throughout this first book of Chumash. Though we know all along through hindsight that all Yaakov's sons earn their place as builders of God's nation, this may not have been necessarily obvious to them. In fact, many scholars have suggested that this concern prompted the sale of Yosef in the first place. Witnessing their father's favoritism towards their young, seemingly arrogant brother, who himself dreams of superiority over them, the brothers suspect that Yosef plans on assuming exclusive rights to the covenant. They try thwarting this alleged plan by disposing of him. Now, many years later and after Yaakov's passing, they fear measure-for-measure retribution at Yosef's hands. As they had tried to oust Yosef from the family legacy, so may he, capitalizing on his authority in a foreign government, seek their expulsion from the covenant: "What if Yosef despises us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!" They then offer to serve him as slaves; rather than paying for their crime by suffering expulsion from the covenantal heritage, they prefer instead to work as slaves as they had caused Yosef to do. He, however, refuses: "Have no fear - am I a substitute for God? Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result - the survival of many people" (50:19-20). Yosef reminds his brothers that God Himself had orchestrated events such that all twelve brothers will be brought together to survive the famine. Providence has determined that all Yaakov's sons will together build His nation; Yosef has no right to interfere.
Parashat Vayechi, the parasha of Yaakov's death, or, more accurately, the parasha of his eternal life, closes with final confirmation of all his sons' inclusion in the blessing he inherited from his predecessors. Now, as all conflicts are resolved and reconciliation secured, Yaakov's children may now form the Israelite nation, whose eternal existence testifies to Yaakov's eternal life.