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Torah Sparks

December 25, 2004 - 13 Tevet 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 47:28-48:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 - 12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Parshat Vayehi marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis - the "end of the beginning." We are informed that Jacob lives in Egypt for seventeen years, forming a symmetry in his life: he enjoyed seventeen years with his beloved son Joseph before the latter's "departure."

As Jacob's life draws to a close, he secures a commitment from Joseph to bury him "with my ancestors" in Canaan. Joseph brings his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh to receive their grandfather's blessing. Though Joseph positions them carefully, so that the elder, Manasseh is at Jacob's right hand, Jacob crosses his arms, placing his right hand on the younger Ephraim and - despite Joseph's objections -- invoking his name before the first-born. Jacob blesses Joseph: "God will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your fathers." Apparently continuing the pattern of favoritism which lead to such adversity in both their lives, Jacob informs Joseph, "I give you one portion more than to your brothers."

From his deathbed, Jacob recites poetic blessings and personalized messages of remonstrance to each of his sons. Before succumbing, Jacob repeats his instructions to bury him in his ancestral plot in the cave of Machpelah, purchased by Abraham. Joseph weeps bitterly at his father's passing, and instructs Egyptian physicians to embalm his body in preparation for its return to Canaan.

Egypt observes seventy days of official mourning in deference to Joseph's father. Joseph secures Pharaoh's permission to accompany his father's remains to their final resting place. Jacob's sons carry him to Machpelah and observe a seven day period of mourning. With Jacob gone, Joseph's brothers fear he will seek revenge for their offenses against him. They inform him of Jacob's instructions that he forgive them - although the reader of the Bible has no corroboration that Jacob actually made such a statement!

Joseph assures them that they need not fear: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good. Fear not. I will sustain you and your children." Joseph lives to see great-grandchildren. Before dying at the age of 110, Joseph secures a promise from his brothers to "carry up my bones from here" when God, in time, returns their descendants to the Promised Land.

Theme #1: "Grandfather Knows Best"

"So he blessed them that day, saying, 'By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.' Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20)

Derash: Study

  • "In order to bless Joseph, out of his love for him, Jacob blessed his sons." (Ramban)
  • "Even though Jacob had set Ephraim, the younger son, before Manasseh, the first-born, Ephraim did not become arrogant and Manasseh did not become jealous. Seeing this, Jacob expressed the hope that all the Children of Israel would be like Ephraim and Manasseh, free of arrogance and envy." (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Igra deKallah)
  • "Jacob's blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with their ages and everything to do with their names. Knowing that these were the first two children of his family to be born in exile, knowing too that the exile would be prolonged and at times difficult and dark, Jacob sought to signal to all future generations that there would be a constant tension between the desire to forget (to assimilate, acculturate, anaesthetize the hope of a return) and the promptings of memory (the knowledge that this is 'exile,' that we are part of another story, that ultimate home is somewhere else). The child of forgetting (Manasseh - see Genesis 41:51) may have blessings. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim - see Genesis 41:52) who remembers the past and future of which he is a part." (Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain)
  • "Oddly, (in the traditional parental blessing) boys are not encouraged to be like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: "May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh' is our prayer for our sons. The people whose lives were touched directly by Abraham may not have felt so blessed. Sarah struggled during her life with Abraham. Hagar… was shunned by her mistress and exiled to the wilderness. Isaac was almost sacrificed by his own father. So was Abraham really such a blessing to those around him in his own generation? Perhaps the blessings Abraham brings are his gifts to future generations. Abraham's legacy is evident in the promise of his descendants Ephraim and Manasseh, two boys he never met. Their existence ensures the continuation of the covenant between Abraham and his God. When we bless our own children by asking God to make our children like Ephraim and Manasseh, we express the hope that our children will be allowed to grow into their own blessings." (Rabbi Sharon Forman)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Ephraim and Manasseh were Diaspora Jews, born to a profoundly assimilated father and a mother who had grown up as the daughter of an Egyptian priest! What did Jacob have in mind by initiating a pattern of Jewish blessing invoking their example?
  2. Prior to Jacob's arrival in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh's maternal grandfather, Poti-phera, priest of On, may well have had a longer and more formative relationship with his grandsons! How might this have impacted Jacob's approach to them?
  3. Is Jacob's prescribed form of Israelite blessing, as Rabbi Forman suggests, an indictment of Abraham - and perhaps even Isaac? What else might have motivated Jacob's choice?
  4. Why are the Matriarchs - Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah - invoked in the traditional blessing of daughters? How does this liturgical practice relate to the interpretation of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (there was certainly envy between Rachel and Leah,and arguably, arrogance in Sarah's treatment of Hagar)?
  5. In addition to the formulaic Shabbat blessing derived from this passage, parents are free to articulate their own personalized message. What blessings do we want for our children? Do we verbalize them adequately? What are the blessings that, as adults, we recognize as the legacy of our parents and grandparents? Were they articulated explicitly or systematically? How will our own legacy be perceived by future generations?
  6. According to the Parshah, Joseph had a special relationship with great-grandchildren - the grandchildren born to Ephraim. What is the role and responsibility of grandparents in the lives, education, and Jewish experiences of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Theme #2:"Listen my children and you shall hear"

"And Jacob called his sons and said, 'Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.'" (Genesis 49:1)

Derash: Study

  • "Jacob called his sons and said to them, 'Cleanse yourselves of impurity and I will reveal to you hidden secrets, and the unknown future, the reward awaiting the righteous, and the torment awaiting the evil, and the delights of paradise." (Targum Yerushalmi)
  • "Until Jacob, there was no illness. Jacob came and asked for mercy, and illness came into being: Thus, a man grows ill before his death, so that he might instruct his household." (Talmud, Baba Metzia 87-A; Rashi, ad loc.)
  • "From the day the heavens and earth were created, no man was ever sick. Rather, one would be on the road or in the marketplace, and would sneeze, and his soul would depart through his nostrils. Until our Father Jacob came and asked God for mercy in this regard: Lord of the Universe, do not take my soul from me until I am able to instruct my sons and the members of my household." (Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, 52)
  • "Jacob becomes conscious of approaching death, and communicates his final wishes to his children. In speaking to define a reality that he is about to leave, Jacob is unique among the patriarchs. His is, in fact, the only deathbed scene in Genesis, indeed in the whole Torah." (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Jacob's blessings, admonitions, and instructions from his deathbed mark the beginning of the Jewish tradition of "ethical wills." Recognizing the fact of our own mortality, what values, goals, hopes, and guidance would we communicate to our loved ones and, in particular, our children and grandchildren? What is the most effective or meaningful way to communicate our message?
  2. Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer describes Jacob's final illness as a welcome and merciful opportunity to gain new perspective and to pass on resulting wisdom. Is this a typical Jewish view of adversity? Why was physical decline necessary for Jacob to offer his "blessings?"
  3. What is the significance of the "sneeze" which is purported by the Midrash to have marked departure of the soul? Does it represent the fragility of life? Our inability indefinitely to forestall death? What does Jacob do to modify or remedy this dramatic expression of our transitory existence?

Historical Note

Parshat Vayehi, comprising the final chapters of the Book of Genesis, is read on December 25, 2004. Our neighbors, celebrating the birth of the Christian savior on this date, Christmas, have traditionally traced his ancestry to King David, and through him to Judah. Christian faithful have, accordingly, linked their messianic belief in the "Prince of Peace" to Jacob's blessing in Genesis 49:10 -- "The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, so that tribute shall come to him, and homage of peoples be his." A modern ruler of the Jewish State, Menachem Begin, met in Ismailia with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on this date, December 25, 1977, in hopes of bringing about a long awaited future of peace.

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