Parashat Vayechi – Erev Shabbat 17 December 2021
Week of 12 – 18 December 2021
Torah portion: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26 Haftarah: 1Kings 2:1-12
Theme: Insights in Exile
This final parashah of the book of Genesis concludes the saga of the patriarchal generation, now in exile in Egypt. It focuses on the death of Jacob, and then closes with a very brief account of the death of Joseph, his eleventh son, and the first child of his beloved wife, Rachel. Jacob spent his last 17 years with Joseph in Egypt, as Joseph had lived his first 17 years with Jacob in Canaan. Those two periods were significant for Jacob, after his 20 years in Paddan-Aram, “when the presence of God did not rest on him,” and during the 22 years of Joseph’s absence, “when the Shekhina departed from him” (cf. Zornberg, Desire p. 360).
The parashah begins with Jacob, at 147 years of age, summoning Joseph to swear that he would bury his father, not in Egypt, but in the cave of the Machpelah (47:30-31), in Canaan. Two chapters later (49:29-32), Jacob repeated the request, this time recalling Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeka, and Jacob’s wife, Leah, who were interred there. When Jacob died (49:33), Joseph fulfilled his request (50:7-14), accompanied by a large delegation from Egypt, which reflects the esteem that Jacob and Joseph had earned there.
Everett Fox (The Five Books of Moses, 228) identifies chapter 49 (“Jacob’s Testament”) as an ancient piece of poetry, later inserted into this narrative. On his deathbed, Jacob’s blocked desire to reveal the end renders this text merely a pathetic “description of each son, with no eschatological reference” (Zornberg, Desire, 357).
The Haftarah evokes the revered image of David, approaching death. However, David’s instruction to his son, Solomon in his quest for revenge, is a stark contrast to Jacob’s story. Jacob’s “blessing of Joseph” (48:15-16), is for the generations to come through Jacob’s ten sons, and Joseph’s two — the 12 tribes of Israel (49:28).
A technicality renders Vayechi a “closed” parashah: on the Torah scroll, no break separates this parashah from the preceding one of Jacob’s arrival in Egypt (cf. 46:26, 47:1). That departs from the custom of ensuring a minimum of nine blank spaces at the end of a parashah, or of leaving the rest of its final line blank. Might the point of that technicality be that the patriarch’s arrival in Egypt from Canaan, and his death there (49:33), strengthened the bond of the Egyptian segment of the story with its counterpart in Canaan, and so supported the option of a return? Famine drove the family to Egypt (43:1); generations later, persecution would prompt a return to Canaan (cf. Exodus), a return that Jacob foresaw: “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers” (48:21). The parashah ends in a reconciliation impelled by the brothers’ fear of Joseph.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1) In 47:30 and 50:25, Jacob and then Joseph, each requests the burial of his remains in the Machpelah, the tomb of their ancestors, in Canaan. What meaning might this hold for them? Have you encountered traditions like this? 2) What would the authentic reconciliation of the brothers require?
Bibliography: Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah, A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York: 1981); Zornberg, Aviva Gottlieb, The Beginning of Desire (Schocken Books, New York, 1995) and The Murmuring Deep (2009).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Diane Willey, NDS, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna: 2005 2006