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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayehi
January 3, 2015 – 12 Tevet 5775

Annual (Genesis 47:28-50:26): Etz Hayim p. 293; Hertz p. 180
Triennial (Genesis 49:1-49:26): Etz Hayim p. 298; Hertz p. 183
Haftarah (I Kings 2:1 – 12): Etz Hayim p. 313; Hertz p. 191

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Jacob, nearing death, asks Joseph to bury him in Canaan, then later adopts and blesses Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob then offers final words to his sons -- some of them harsh, others filled with blessing. Jacob dies, and the brothers bury him in the Cave of Machpelah. The brothers fear once again that Joseph will take revenge on them for selling him into slavery years before, but Joseph reassures them that God meant for things to happen the way they did. Joseph dies and is embalmed, with his brothers promising that he, too, would be buried in Canaan.

Theme #1: Back to the Future

And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; hearken to Israel your father.” (Genesis 49:1-2)

After listening to God tell him the future at three separate occasions, it is Jacob's turn to reveal some of his visions for future times.

Rashi said that [Jacob] wanted to reveal to them the end of Israel’s exile but the Divine Presence departed from him, and he began to ramble on about other things. This comment by Rashi is a little surprising. No matter what you will say, if the Holy One had revealed to Jacob the mystery to Jacob the mystery of the End of Days, why was it now closed from him when he wanted to reveal it to his sons? And if it were forbidden for him to reveal the secret of the End even to his sons, just how did he know this? The answer is that Jacob himself did not know the secret; he prayed to God that it would be revealed to him in order that he would be able to transmit it to his son. “The Divine Presence departed from him.” God hinted to him from the heavens that Jacob did not really want to know. Better that he not know the end or the beginning of the redemption but that [his sons should] yearn for this knowledge with a great longing. -- Menachem Mendl of Kotzk

If you think that Jacob did not expose precisely what he set out to expose, how do you explain the fact that the Torah follows Jacob’s introduction with those words -- with nary an interruption -- if in fact they were unfinished and fragmentary? Clearly, he completed everything he wished to divulge, only he revealed it while yet concealing it, without leaving out a single letter. -- Zohar

The Patriarch’s actual name, which had been given to him at birth, was Jacob. Hence every Jew, regardless of the manner in which he conducts himself, is regarded as a “son of Jacob” by virtue of his descent from Jacob and of his being part of the Jewish nation. The name Israel, however, was not given to Jacob until much later in life, when he had attained the high moral level that made him worthy of it. For this reason this name, when applied to the Jewish people as a whole, signifies the high moral level of the community of Israel as the spiritual heirs of Jacob. -- Avnei Ezel

Questions for Discussion:

Menachem Mendl of Kotzk shares the tale of Jacob wanting to know a lot about the future, a request that God denies. Is it common to want to know what will happen in the future? Is this due to curiosity, or because we might alter our behavior if we knew? How much of our knowledge of the future, if we knew it for sure, would we one day regret? Would Jacob have regretted knowing the future of his family if God had told him?

The Zohar suggests an intriguing idea about Jacob’s final address to his sons: He revealed every letter that tells the story of the future, but spaced the words differently in our text than the prophecy’s true meaning. One would need to read between the lines in order to know the full content of Jacob’s words. Why would Jacob bother saying everything if his sons and other descendants wouldn’t understand them? How should we try to understand them?

Avnei Ezel believes that “Israel” is a name that we need to earn; we need to work for the privilege of being called such an important name. What do we need to do to “deserve” such a name? When our parents give us first and middle names, should it be our responsibility to live up to the meaning of those names? What about our last names?

Theme #2: A Reuben Sandwich: Reuben in a Pickle

“Reuben, you are my first-born, my might and first fruit of my vigor, exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor. Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace -- my couch he mounted!” (Genesis 49:3-4)

As the [Joseph] story unfolds, Reuben subsequent attempts to be the leader of his brothers also appear pathetic. When Joseph pretends not to recognize his brothers in Egypt, Reuben has nothing positive to offer to remedy the situation and can only make accusations about the past. … Thus, Reuben is eliminated from the candidacy for leadership, as Jacob summarizes in his blessing: Although yours should be a position “exceeding in rank and exceeding in honor,” you will not receive this status because you are “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer.” -- Gabriel H. Cohen, “You, Your Brothers Shall Praise,” from A Divinely Given Torah in our Day and Age, Volume I

The text as a whole is notoriously difficult in Hebrew, but the allusion to Reuben’s sin with Bilhah, “you went up to your father’s bed,” seems clear enough. As for the phrase in the preceding line, “you shall not have preeminence,” its verbal root basically means “leave over, remain, be extra”. In context, this passage might thus be interpreted as Jacob’s assertion that Reuben was not to acquire (or pass on) the firstborn’s extra allotment because of his sin with Bilhah. If so, then Reuben was punished: the birthright that should have been his was allotted to Joseph instead. -- James L. Kugel, The Ladder of Jacob: Ancient Interpretations of the Biblical Story of Jacob and His Children

According to the rule of the firstborn, Reuben’s status granted him “exceeding honor,” but his transgression with Jacob’s concubine, though described in the somewhat restrained and euphemistic terminology of “[mounting his] father’s bed” and “defiling,” nevertheless causes Jacob to rebuke him as being “unstable as water” and to take from him the advantages that his birth had granted: “You shall excel no longer.” According to this tradition, the Patriarch curses his wrongdoing son only at this point, on his deathbed, and perhaps for this reason it was necessary to remove the curse or bitter reaction that was initially part of the story in Genesis 35 in order to avoid duplication. -- Avigdor Shinan & Yair Zakovitch, From Gods to God

Questions for Discussion:

Cohen blames the negative words in Reuben’s “blessing” on his poor conduct throughout much of his life. His demotion indicates that Jacob sees his prophecies for his sons to be based on a meritocracy of sorts. If so, does this jive with the blessings and curses given to other brothers? Are those blessings deserved given what we know about them?

Kugel describes Joseph receiving a blessing worthy of a first-born as a rejection of Reuben, as if Reuben would have received that blessing all along. But given what we know about Jacob’s life-long feelings for the first-born son of his beloved Rachel, is it possible that Jacob intends to give Joseph the best blessing all along? Does Joseph “earn” his blessing?

Shinan and Zakovitch relate that Jacob waits until he lies on his deathbed to rebuke Reuben for sleeping with Jacob’s concubine. Is it more effective to rebuke someone immediately after a wrongdoing is committed, or towait until time has passed so that we can fully evaluate the impact the wrongdoing has caused? Could this simply be a case of Jacob holding back his anger until, on his deathbed, he can hold his tongue no longer?

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