Parashat Vayehi – Looking Back and Looking Forward

וַיִּקְרָא לִבְנוֹ לְיוֹסֵף

Parashat Vayehi closes not only the sagas of Yaakov and Yosef, respectively, but also all of ever Bereishit. As part of the ending of Yaakov’s story, Yaakov bless his sons and asks to be buried in the burial plot of his fathers, the Cave of Makhpelah. However, none of this happens simply. First, Yaakov, realizing his death is approaching, calls his son Yosef to him and commands Yosef to make sure that he is buried with his fathers (Bereishit 47:28-31). A short time later, Yosef hears that Yaakov has become ill and brings his sons, Menashe and Efraim, to visit their grandfather, who blesses them (48:1-22). Yaakov then calls the rest of his sons to gather around his deathbed so he can “tell them about what will occur to them in the future,” which comprises a mix of prophecies and blessings or curses that are consequences for the deeds of his sons up to this point (49:1-28).  Then Yaakov commands his sons to bury him to bury him in the Cave of Makhpelah (49:29-33), following which he passes away and is buried in a large funeral procession (50:1-13). Throughout all of this there is a marked emphasis on Yosef over his brothers. Yosef is commanded twice to bury his father in Canaan, once among his brothers and once alone. Yosef is blessed twice, once when his sons are blessed privately, and once among the blessings of Yaakov to all of his sons, where Yosef receives a lengthy and grand blessing. And then Yosef is the one who organizes and executes the burial of Yaakov[1]. This sudden focus on Yosef, over his brothers, can be explained by looking not only at Yosef’s stories, but also at those of Yaakov, and seeing the while Yaakov’s story is closing, Yaakov wants to open the story of his descendants in manner he never could.

Throughout his life, Yaakov is drawn to the status quo[2]. If he doesn’t have to change his way of life, he doesn’t, even when he should. In a time when he should have gone to take a wife from Aram Naharaiim, he instead remained in the house of his father until both the threat of his brother and the command of his parents. When he lived in the house of Lavan, he should have left after building his family, but instead he delayed until Lavan’s disfavor and ‘א’s command sent him back to Canaan. Then he stayed by Shekhem until he needed to flee after the actions of Shimon and Levi, when he should have gone straight to Beit El to fulfill his vow to ‘א. The story of Yaakov’s life is a story of him being forced out of his comfort zone to go wherever he is supposed to go.

Yosef’s story is the exact opposite. He was forced out of his home and sold down to Egypt, but from then on in he is the driving force behind not only his life but that his family and of the entire nation of Egypt. He not only interprets the dreams which lead to him being freed from prison[3], but he of his own volition recommends to Paroah a plan of action that will save Egypt and the surrounding lands from the famine. Then he manipulates his brothers in a complex plan that leads to the reuniting of his family and their descent to Egypt, where they will be safe from the famine. Yosef’s story is not about being kicked around from place to place, but about building a grand destiny.

When Yaakov puts extra emphasis on Yosef at the end of Sefer Bereishit it is a way of designating Yosef as the next leader of the nation of Israel[4]. He’s not being chosen while his brothers are rejected, as happened in previous generations of ‘א’s covenant. In keeping with his proactive approach, he is being put in charge of practical management of the family. Thus he is given the extra portion and blessing of the first-born, and he is given an extra instruction regarding his father’s burial, making him responsible even in the event that his brothers fail. He also passes on the familial-covenantal destiny, reminding his family that they will one day be redeemed from Egypt, and asking them to take his bones with them, a promise that will not be completed until the very end of Sefer Yehoshua  (24:32). Thus while Yaakov’s death closes the story of Sefer Bereishit, Yosef’s death opens the story of the rest of the Torah, and beyond.

Yosef’s leadership is the last stage of ‘א’s covenant before it switches from an individual and his family to the nation as a whole, and it is very much a transitional stage. This stage is all about being forward thinking, about not getting stuck in the past. And thus Yosef gives a final command to his family, to the Nation of Israel, to keep moving forward. The Torah charges us to remember that the present is not the end, that there is a prophetic future that we are heading towards. And thus the Torah charges us not to be ok with the status quo, not to accept the things “small immoralities[5]” and the “minor imperfections” of our society. As long as the future is coming toward us, we have an obligation to race toward it, to make ourselves and our surroundings the best we can possibly be.

[1] Much of this would seem to be a function of the fact that Yosef is in some ways the new “firstborn” of Yaakov’s family. After Reuven sinned with Bilhah, the birthright would go to the next in line, Shimon. Shimon lost the birthright when he attacked Shekhem, as did Levi, the next in line. Yehuda goes back and forth between good and bad actions, which is why he receives the Kingship, but is not the “firstborn”. As for why Levi receives the priesthood while Shimon receives nothing, it is unclear but there are a few things to say. The first, most famous, point is that the Tribe of Levi stands up and declares themselves to be dedicated to ‘א in Shemot 32, and this might make all the difference. However, as the heroes of the first half of Sefer Shemot are from the tribe of Levi, it is worth noting that Shimon commits a cardinal sin offscreen (I am indebted for this point to R’ Pesach Sommer). In the list of Yaakov’s descendants in Bereishit 47, we are told that one of Shimon’s children is the son of a Canaanite woman (Bereishit 46:10), and throughout the stories of the Patriarchs it is clear that marrying a Canaanite woman is frowned upon, to say the least (Bereishit 24, 26:34-35, 27:46-28:9).

[2] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[3] Notably, many people are familiar with the midrash that Rashi brings suggesting that Yosef is forgotten for two years by the Head Wine-Bearer as punishment for depending on the wine-bearer instead of trusting in ‘א. However, Ramban actually praises Yosef for this, and sees many of Yosef’s actions as being about the actualization of his dreams.

[4] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Yonatan Grossman.

[5] For a discussion of the prophetic idea that there is no such thing as a “small immorality,” see A. J. Heschel, the Prophets, Vol. 1, “What manner of man is the Prophet?”

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