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Torah Sparks

December 18, 2010 - 11 Tevet 5771

Annual: 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 Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Reading Summary

Parashat Vayechi marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis - the end of the beginning. We are told 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 calling him by name before addressing the firstborn. 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 that led to such adversity in both their lives, Jacob tells 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 he dies, Jacob repeats his instructions to bury him in his ancestral plot in the cave of Machpelah, which his grandfather Abraham had bought. Joseph weeps bitterly at his father's death, and instructs the Egyptian physicians to embalm his body in preparation for its return to Canaan.

Egypt observes seventy days of official mourning for 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 mourning period. With Jacob gone, Joseph's brothers fear he will seek revenge for their offenses against him. They tell him about 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 greatgrandchildren. 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: “Partners in Crime; Paternal End-Time”

“Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7)

Derash: Study

  1. “‘The poor, the scribes, and the teachers of schoolchildren descend exclusively from the tribe of Simeon,' says Rashi. The role of Simeon is to instill in their students, in our youth, the lessons of heroism, selfless devotion, and to teach them to be zealous and courageous. This is the unique and privileged destiny of Simeon.” (Kol Aryeh)
  2. “‘Cursed be their anger.' This is not a curse but a blessing: May it be God's will that their anger not prevail, that they not grow accustomed to being angry.” (Chizkuni)
  3. “Simeon and Levi were zealous for the sake of God's commandments. They did what they did to Shechem not in order to sow dissension or because they loved war. They would not have risked their lives if it had not been with the intention of sanctifying the sake of heaven, and to act out of zeal for the Lord of Hosts. Nevertheless, Jacob cursed their zealotry, because anger and zealotry are not among the good qualities to which we should aspire, and one should always actively avoid them, even if they are for the sake of heaven and with good intentions.” (Ginzeinu Ha-Atik)
  4. “Jacob was minimizing his sons' transgressions. ‘I will divide them in Jacob' may have referred to their anger, not the tribes they would one day represent. Clearly these two brothers displayed excessive anger, but if this trait were diffused among all the tribes, a healthy phenomenon would occur: everyone would enjoy the modicum of anger necessary for survival.” (Rabbi Moses Schreiber, The Chatam Sofer)
  5. “Levi is here depicted as a purely secular, warlike tribe. There is no hint of its future sacerdotal status. The explanation implied here that the lack of tribal territory is in punishment for reprehensible conduct, conflicts with the reasons given in other texts, which attribute it to the spiritual destiny and special status and emoluments granted the tribe.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

Questions for Discussion

Jacob's condemnation of his two sons, presumably for their attack on Shechem, is indictment (as by Chatam Sofer, Chizkuni, and especially Rashi and Kol Aryeh)? Is harsh and unambiguous. What motivates the effort to soften or to obscure this this to be attributed exclusively to concern for Levi's role as progenitor of the priesthood? Or is it a judgment on a father disassociating himself from his children with his final words?

How does the Chatam Sofer's comment on the desirability of measured anger as a survival technique relate to the challenges facing the State of Israel today? How might his message have been received (and intended) during his own lifetime (1762- 1839)? To what extent is a capacity for anger a desirable personal quality for us to embrace?

Why does Rashi go so far beyond softening Jacob's “curse” and attribute such a lofty legacy to the Tribe of Simeon? (Salomon Buber, in his introduction to Midrash Tanchuma, paraphrasing this teaching, suggests that the word chamas - generally translated as “lawlessness” or “violence” - is actually an acronym for CHazanim, Melamdim, Sofrim - cantors, teachers, and scribes - that is, “their implements are the tools of spiritual leaders and educators!)

Why was it important - or appropriate - for Jacob to excoriate Simeon and Levi so vehemently? What would have been the effect if he had used the formulation of Ginzeinu Ha-Atik (or a similarly balanced message) as his “blessing”?

Theme #2: “Like Father, Like Son(s)”

“When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, ‘Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.' Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.' And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:15-17)

Derash: Study

  1. “The brothers believed that Joseph had refrained from punishing them while their father was still alive because he had not wanted to cause him grief. They therefore sent word to Joseph as follows: ‘Your father is dead, but his God is still alive' (see Rashi). If you did not want to cause your father grief, you certainly cannot grieve the master of the Universe, who is grieved by any suffering that comes to a son of Jacob.'” (Ateret Tzvi)
  2. “There is no evidence that Jacob ever said these words attributed to him. The sages therefore assume that what the brothers said was in fact a lie. They conclude: ‘It is permissible to change [i.e. to tell a white lie] for the sake of peace. Truth matters, but peace matters more. That is Judaism's considered judgment. To make peace the Torah sanctions a statement that is less than the whole truth. Dishonesty? No. Tact, sensitivity, discretion? Yes. That is an idea both eminently sensible and humane.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversations)
  3. “Jacob never said this, for he did not suspect Joseph of intending violence. The brothers, however, did suspect him… It was for this reason that Joseph wept: because his brothers suspected him of evil intent that was not in him.” (Harei Besamim)
  4. “‘When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him.'” But at this point in his life, Joseph doesn't see the damage in what they did. In their bad act, Joseph now sees good. Joseph's brothers didn't know that, so naturally they were nervous. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God. Some of us, like Joseph's brothers, can only see the facts of what has happened, standing nervously by waiting to see what might come next. Others of us, like Joseph himself, can learn to put those facts into a larger context, to appreciate them with sacred sensitivity, and though not forgetting what has taken place, take responsibility for seeing in them a consequential meaning for our lives.” (Rabbi Ron Shulman)

Questions for Discussion

To what should we attribute Joseph's tears in this passage? His brothers' distrust, unfounded fears, and unjustified suspicions (Harei Besamim)? Continuing grief at the mention of his father and his parental concern? A restrained reaction to the transparency of his brothers' deceit? Their affected piety?

What evidence does the text provide to substantiate (or to dispute) Rabbi Shulman's depiction of Joseph as a sensitive spiritual thinker, at peace with himself and with the tumultuous events of his life?

Was the brothers' fabrication a godly act of discretion aimed at maintaining family peace, or, by suggesting that Jacob saw Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers as artificial, was it a shameless act of self-preservation at the possible expense of their father's posthumous image?

Halachah L'Maaseh

The seven days Joseph mourned for Jacob, often cited as the origin of shiva, came long after his father's death, after 40 days of embalming, 70 days of Egyptian mourning, and the period required for travel back to Canaan. Today, shiva begins upon burial. If the body is transported a great distance, as to Israel, for burial, shiva begins for those remaining behind when the vehicle carrying the deceased departs.

Historic Note

On December 18, 2010, we read of the interment of the Patriarch Jacob in his ancestral burial plot, the Cave of Machpelah. On December 18, 1799, George Washington - the father of his country - was buried at his family estate in Mount Vernon.

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