Friday, December 21, 2007

Thoughts on Vayechi

After Yosef successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, Pharaoh delegated to him virtually unlimited power. And yet, in the last two weeks' parshas, it is striking that in one particular sphere Yosef has no independence whatsoever. Regarding his own family - the brothers' arrival in Egypt, Yaakov's burial, etc. - Yosef feels the need to consult Pharaoh for permission before taking any decision, however small.

It seems that this oversight is motivated by concerns about Yosef's loyalty. When they first came down to Egypt, Yosef accused his 10 brothers of being spies. Yosef knew this was a false accusation, but how could Pharaoh have known? And how could Pharaoh have known that Yosef, for all his talents, would not be tempted to rebel? He was, after all, a despised "Asiatic" foreigner just like his family. Perhaps he shared their likely lack of concern for the existing political order in Egypt.

Of course, Yosef in fact has no plans to overthrow Pharaoh, and Pharaoh probably doesn't really expect him to try. But still, this is an area in which extra prudence is called for, and Yosef is smart enough not to allow any doubts to arise.

This reminds me of the situation in Potiphar's house, where Yosef controlled everything, except for Potiphar's wife. Similarly, here, Yosef had absolute control of everything in Egypt, except in relation to Pharaoh's "household", i.e. the monarchy and dynastic line.

[Yaakov] blessed them on that day, saying: "By you shall Israel bless, saying: 'God make you like Efraim and like Menashe.' " (48:20)

What does this blessing mean, and what is Efraim and Menashe's special quality which makes it a blessing to be compared to them?

I think the answer comes in the next two verses:
"Yisrael said to Yosef: 'Behold, I shall die; but God will be with you, and will bring you back to the land of your fathers. And I have given you one portion more than your brothers...' "

It seems that the blessing of Efraim and Menashe is related to the assignment of a double portion to Yosef's descendants. Yosef's brothers all received a single portion. In contrast, despite everything he went through (i.e. being thrown out of the family for decades), Yosef was unexpectedly rewarded with a double portion before Yaakov's death.

The blessing mentions Efraim and Menashe, the two sons who personify Yosef's double portion. It therefore expresses the hope we overcome adversity to not only reach our expected levels of accomplishment, but to surpass them.

Binyamin is a ravaging wolf; in the morning he consumes plunder, and in the evening he divides spoils. All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this what their father said to them and blessed them; each one he blessed according to his blessing. And he commanded them and said to them: "I am gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers, in the cave in Efron the Hittite's field..." (49:27-29)

The white spaces in a Torah scroll, otherwise known as parshiyah breaks, are almost always a good indication of the Torah's structure (though much less so for certain parts of Nach). But here, a parshiyah break separates Binyamin's blessing from his brothers' blessings, but not from the story of death which follows it. What can possibly lead the Torah to apparently "lump in" Binyamin's blessing with topics which are pretty much unrelated?

(Note: To grasp my explanation, it will immensely help to have a Torah scroll open to parshat Vayechi. If that's impractical, a Koren Tanach or a "tikkun", which have the same formatting, work equally well. :-) )

We can answer the question by saying there are two distinct types of parshiyah breaks - one "thematic" and one "stylistic". A "thematic" parshiyah break separates distinct sections or stories from one another. A "stylistic" parshiyah break (which occurs WITHIN a thematic parshiyah) indicates more minute distinctions, usually between individual items in a list. They can be seen as a looser version of the formatting used in (for example) Az Yashir. Everyone agrees that Az Yashir is a single thematic section, even though it has white space inserted in many places.

Here, Yaakov's blessings to the 12 sons are all part of one thematic section, even though there is white space between each of them. In fact, the blessings are not the only things in the section. The section actually begins with verse 49:1, when Yaakov gathers his sons together for the blessing. It continues with 1) the blessings themselves, 2) Yaakov's death and burial, 3) the brothers begging Yosef for forgiveness, and 4) Yosef's death, at the very end of Sefer Breishit. All this would be one continuous flow of text, were it not for the "stylistic" breaks inserted between the 12 sons' blessings.

To analyze such a long section, you break it down into thematic "sub-sections" as I have just done (1 through 4). These sub-sections are not separated by white space. But, within the first sub-section ("the 12 sons' blessings"), each blessing IS separated by white space. Thus Binyamin's blessing "appears" to be connected to what comes after it, because there is no white space. But in fact, it is separated from what follows by an invisible sub-section-break, and actually connects to the blessings before it, though it is spatially separate from them.

We see a very similar phenomenon in Devarim 33 - Moshe's blessing of Israel. Here, the 12 blessings are all separated from each other, but the first and last blessings (Reuven and Asher) are not separated from what comes (respectively) before and after them. Once again, the sub-section of blessings does not have a parshiyah break before or after it, but it does have stylistic breaks in the middle.

Another example is the story of Adam and Eve. There is a parshiyah break between each of the three curses (snake, woman, man). But there are no breaks either before or after the curses, or elsewhere in the story. Here the curses form a sub-section with stylistic breaks inside it.

One more instance is Vayikra 18. It is clear that there are two sets of prohibitions in this chapter: 1) incestuous relations, referred to as "uncovering nakedness", and 2) various other sexual sins, not called "uncovering nakedness". The first set has a parshiyah break between each verse, while the second set is a continuous run-on of verses. How should we categorize verse 18:17, which is on the boundary between the two sets? On one hand it talks about incest and "nakedness"; on the other hand it is part of the continuous run-on. But applying our previous model, it is clear that the sub-section on incest ends after verse 18:17, and the parshiyah break before 18:17 is simply stylistic, like the other parshiyah breaks in the incest sub-section.

[Yaakov's burial party] came to Goren Haatad, which is beyond the Jordan, and they lamented a very great and deep lamentation; and [Yosef] mourned for his father seven days. (50:10)

Yaakov died in Egypt and was buried in Hevron. Why would his burial party go to Goren Haatad for the mourning ceremony? Wherever exactly Goren Haatad is, it's definitely "beyond the Jordan" River and thus in modern-day Jordan - very far off the road leading from Egypt to Hevron.

It seems to me that the only conceivable significance of "beyond the Jordan" in this context is that Esav lives there. By this time, it's likely that none of Yaakov's family lived in Hevron. So it did not make sense to perform all the ceremonies there. It would be much more sensible to visit Yaakov's brother, and hold the "shivah" at his house in southern Jordan, with only a quick detour to Hevron for the actual burial procedure.

(The gemara in Sotah 13a connects Goren Haatad to Esav as well, but for different reasons.)

(UPDATE: fixed a stupid mistake and did some editing - i.e. basically corrected for the fact that this was written at 1AM)

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