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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Parashat Vayehi – Divine Providence and Human Responsibility

הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי

 

Parashat Vayehi records the final moments of the lives of both Yaakov and Yosef. From Yosef’s very first appearance in the Torah, his life and Yaakov’s are intimately connected. His birth signifies to Yaakov that the time has come to leave Aram and the house of Laban (Beraishit 30:25). The beginning of Yosef’s narratives are explicitly part of Yaaakov’s story: “אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף”, “These are the generations of Yaakov; Yosef..[1]” (Beraishit 37:2). Beraishit Rabah (84:6) lists some twenty parallels between their lives, from being born to barren mothers and working as shepherds to living outside the Land of Israel and raising a family there, and that list isn’t even exhaustive. The two characters are so tightly interwoven that one can hardly appreciate one without understanding the other[2].

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers come to him to convince him not to kill them (Beraishit 50:15-19). Certain that he only stayed his hand out of respect for their father, they tell Yosef that Yaakov commanded him not to kill them, and offer themselves as his slaves. Yosef responds to them, saying, “אל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי”, “Fear not; for am I in the place of God? ”. This phrase, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים” shows up exactly one other time in the entire Tanakh.

Rachel, unable to have children, came to Yaakov to say that he must give her a child or she will die (Beraishit 30:1). Yaakov’s anger flares against her and he says, “הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנֹכִי אֲשֶׁר מָנַע מִמֵּךְ פְּרִי בָטֶן”, “Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” (Beraishit 30:2). Thus this phrase spans the entirety of Yosef’s life, from before his birth until after his father’s death.

These two uses of the same phrase are similar on the surface, but they have vastly different implications. While both Yaakov and Yosef are saying that ‘א is in control, they have rather opposite intentions. Yosef finds himself in a position of total control over his brothers. He is the Royal Vizier of a country where his brothers are living as guests. Their father, out of respect for whom he kept secret their nigh-murderous actions (Beraishit 37), has died, leaving Yosef free to act with impunity. The time is ripe for his vengeance. Despite all of that, he tells them that he is not in place of ‘א. He is not simply stating that out of humility he will not take revenge, but rather he is making a point about the nature of history and the need for revenge. The brothers are concerned that because they did him wrong, Yosef will respond in kind (Beraishit 50:15, 17). Yosef tells them that they don’t need to fear him because he is not in place of ‘א, and that while they were planning to do evil, ‘א was planning good (Beraishit 50:19-20). Thus he will not be taking vengeance because there is no need; his brothers tried to do something bad, but ‘א’s plan meant that they actually did something good. Regardless of what he, and they, may have thought was best course of events, ‘א is the one who decides what that really is .Yosef sacrifices his sense of entitlement on the altar of ‘א’s control of history.

Yaakov’s situation is totally different. Rachel comes to him asking for him to give her a child, and he lashes out at her, saying that he is not ‘א that she should come to him for a child. Instead of giving up his sense of entitlement, Yaakov gives up his sense of responsibility. He actually says that ‘א is the one withholding children from Rachel (Beraishit 30:2). It’s not Yaakov’s fault, it’s ‘א’s. The Midrash in Beraishit Rabah (71:7) highlights this with a fascinating expansion of their conversation. The midrash depicts Rachel pointing to Yitzchak and Avraham and asking Yaakov why he didn’t act like they did when their wives couldn’t have children. Yaakov deflects the Yitzchak question by saying that he already has children whereas his father didn’t, which leads directly to Rachel mentioning Avraham to her eventually giving of her maidservant to Yaakov as a wife. However, bypassing the question by Yitzchak ignores the whole point of the comparison: Yitzchak tried to help his wife have children, by praying to ‘א on her behalf (Beraishit 25:21), and Yaakov didn’t. While no one would maintain that Yaakov is the one in charge of whether or not Rachel is able to have children, that’s not within his power, the midrash here draws out the point that Yaakov also doesn’t try anything that is within his power. Yaakov points to ‘א’s control because that way it’s not his fault, that way he doesn’t have to take responsibility.

The Tanakh doesn’t put anything outside of ‘א’s power. He created the world and He does miracles. But it just as clearly values human choice and initiative (Devarim 30:19). In no place does it bother to resolve this contradiction, as the Torah is more interested in the way Man lives a life of ‘א than in purposeless philosophizing[3]. That said, its opinion on such matters is still evident from analysis of the experiences it records. In this case, as the midrash indicates, the Tanakh’s opinion is more in line with Yosef than with Yaakov. Yosef locates ‘א’s Providence in the Past. Everything that has happened has been according to the Will of ‘א. Based on this, he makes his choices about the actions he will be taking in the Future. In contrast, Yaakov sees ‘א as being in complete control of the Future, and thus Yaakov’s actions are meaningless. Yaakov doesn’t try to attain a child for Rachel because that’s entirely up to ‘א. And while that isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s not how the Tanakh wants us to live. We are supposed to take responsibility for our actions. In a certain sense, we’re supposed to live as if there is only Divine Providence in the Past, as if ‘א has no stake in the future. The world we live in, all our natural abilities and everything that we have received, these are all things we should see as functions of Divine Providence. But what we do with these thing? That is up to us. We don’t get to say that ‘א will just take care of us, that we don’t have to do our part. The whole concept of the Torah and Mitzvoth being given to Man is based off the idea that ‘א wants us to take certain actions. Leaving it up to ‘א is not an option. “הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה” (Mishnah Avoth 3:15).

[1] Translations are from mechon-mamre.org

[2] For an understanding of Yosef’s life as a consequence of Yaakov’s theft of the brakha from Esav, and subsequent activites, see Rav Amnon Bazak’s book מקבילות נפגישות, Chapter Sixteen.

[3] The Torah is not Man’s Theology so much as it is God’s Anthropology. ~A.J. Heschel, God In Search Of Man