Monday, January 08, 2007

Thoughts on Vayechi

Vayechi is the only parsha in the Torah which starts in the middle of a line and not at a parshiyah break. This is understandable because the only nearby parshiyah break is pretty depressing and not something you would want to focus on, but it obscures what is going on in the parshiyah. So it's useful to ignore the parsha break and dissect the parshiyah on its own merits. Here are the parshiyah's sections as I see them:
  • 1. Yaakov arrives
  • 2. Yaakov sees Yosef, says he can now die
  • 3. Sons presented to Pharoah
  • 4. Yaakov presented to Pharoah
  • 5. Yaakov etc. sustained with best of land
  • 6. The Egyptians are hungry; they sell everything to Yosef for food. All of them except the priests are subjugated to Pharoah
  • 7. Yaakov lives richly in Egypt
  • 8. Yaakov is close to death, has Yosef swear to bury him in Hevron (this last section is the only one in parshat Vayechi)

It is clear that the parshiyah covers a long time (close to 17 years) and thus is diverse in terms of the stories covered. However, I think it can be divided among two distinct themes. Thematically they perhaps belong in separate parshiyot, but because they are chronologically interwoven they are presented together. The themes are:
  • (5, 6, 7) The juxtaposition of Egypt descending into poverty and subjugation with the prosperity of the priests, of Yosef (who was part of a priestly family), and of Yaakov. On one hand this is a natural result and reflects God's protection of Yaakov's family. On the other hand its morality is dubious and it is a clear motivation for the Jewish enslavement which follows. Therefore, it sheds light on what comes both before and after it.
  • (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8) The personal story of Yaakov coming to Egypt. He has had a very difficult life; this is evident from previous stories but is reemphasized here in section 2 and 4. But finally, this parshiyah tells us, the story ends happily and Yaakov gets to live comfortably with his entire family. (Sections 3 and 4, where Yaakov's sons and then Yaakov are presented to Pharoah, are slightly weird. Perhaps section 3 is just there to provide context for section 4, which is obviously relevant to Yaakov's story.)

Sefer Breishit has several main "theses" which are emphasized in story after story. These are: God's authority over the world; the existence of reward and punishment; God's fulfillment of promises, and how and why the Jewish people came to exist (and to be in Egypt). The first three theses are evident in the story of Egypt's poverty and Yaakov's family's wealth. And all four them are evident in the satisfaction Yaakov receives at the end of his life. The common element of the stories of Yaakov in Egypt is that all of them help prove that Yaakov was rewarded in the end. This conclusion, which attests to three of the theses of Sefer Breishit, is sufficient reason for the various stories to be presented in one parshiyah.

There is one loose end to this understanding. The rewards pictured in Sefer Breishit, and certainly the promises and covenants God made, are implicitly set in Eretz Yisrael. But Yaakov and his family, who we are now supposed to picture as being rewarded, have been exiled to Egypt. Their story reminds us of Yishmael, who was exiled from Eretz Yisrael and married an Egyptian woman. Has Yaakov in fact been excluded from Jewish destiny as Yishmael was?

The last section of the parshiyah comes to answer this question. Yaakov is rich and successful in Egypt. But he has not cut off his connections with his ancestors or with Eretz Yisrael, and in his final moments he acts to ensure his return to both of them. This is an important correction to the personal story of Yaakov, so it belongs in this parshiyah, and not with the other stories of his death in the chapters that follow.

When Yosef saw that his father was laying his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him. He raised his father's hand, to move it from Ephraim's head to Menashe's head. Yosef said to his father: "Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put your right hand upon his head." (48:17-18)

This scene is very reminiscent of Breishit chapter 27, when Yaakov took Esav's blessing. In both cases the aging patriarch, near death and unable to see, wants to bless his descendants. In both, there is debate over whether the older or younger son should receive the primary blessing. And in both, a parent of the two kids tries to maneuver this blessing to the "right" son when the patriarch seems to be getting it "wrong".

But at the same time, the manner of the blessing is very different, and so are its results. It is hard not to see this blessing as a "tikkun" or reparation for the deception regarding Yitzchak's blessing, and also for the favoritism Yaakov had shown to Yosef before his kidnapping. The mistakes which had been made in the previous two generations, leading to bitter and violent conflict between Yaakov and Yosef and their respective brothers, are repaired in the blessing of Yosef's sons. Here both brothers get the same blessing, and only in passing does Yaakov mention that Efraim's blessing is more substantive. Also, in contrast to the exclusion of Rivka and Yaakov's wives from the blessing process, here Yosef is present and can argue the details of the blessings until he is convinced that they are acceptable. And perhaps most importantly, both brothers are present when each other's blessings are given. This seems like a minor point, but I think it leads to a degree of understanding and acceptance which was sadly missing among the previous sets of siblings.

In later Jewish history we find many conflicts between Israel and Edom, and between various alignments of the tribes of Israel. But there was never a tradition of conflict between the tribes of Efraim and Menashe, despite their proximity and power. The thoughtfulness of Yaakov's final blessing may be one reason why.

They sent a message to Yosef, saying: "Your father did command before he died, saying: 'Say thus to Yosef: Please forgive your brothers' transgression, and their sin, in that they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of your father's God."
And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.
And his brethren went and fell down before his face, and said: "Behold, we are your slaves."

I have two questions here, which I think are related. First, why does Yosef cry in the middle of the brothers' plea for forgiveness, making it seem like the end of the plea - where they put themselves at his mercy - would not induce him to cry? Secondly, if Yaakov wanted to ask Yosef to forgive the brothers, wouldn't he have asked Yosef directly, instead of having the brothers quote his words? Yaakov and Yosef certainly had plenty of opportunity to talk before Yaakov's death!

I suspect that the brother's quoting Yaakov is a bad lie - Yaakov never actually said what the brothers quote him as saying - and Yosef knows it. Our story has an interesting parallel in the previous generation, when Esav postpones his plan to murder Yaakov until after their father dies. It seems the brothers assume Yosef will do the same, and the only way to save themselves is to invent a story which makes Yaakov's opinion relevant after he is physically gone. As unlikely as it is that Yaakov would have made the statement to the brothers and not to Yosef, the brothers are so desperate that they feel forced to tell this particular lie. Yosef is shocked to learn that they are so terrified of his imagined vengeance and will go to such extremes to try to escape it. There is a gigantic gap between their conception of him and his real intentions, and Yosef cries upon learning that the divide between them is so deep. He learns of this gap not from their request for forgiveness, which he could reasonably have expected from them, but from the lie which they felt forced to tell and which he detects.

UPDATE: Two insightful articles.

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