Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of January 5-11, 2020
By Cantor/Rabbi Arik Wollheim, AJRCA Professor of Cantorial & Liturgical Studies
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
In the Torah, paragraphs are separated by a space which always separates one parsha from the other. Parshat Vayechi is the only one that starts without any space from the previous one – Vayigash. Trying to explain why, Rashi (1040-1105 France) in his commentary on the first verse of Parshat Vayechi writes: “Why is this section (Sidra) totally closed? Because, comprising as it does an account of the death of Jacob, as soon as our father Jacob departed this life the hearts and eyes of Israel were closed (their eyes became dim and their hearts troubled) because of the misery of the bondage which they then began to impose upon them.”

It seems that Rashi doesn’t answer the question why there’s no space between the parashotand instead gives an aggadah or Midrash (non-legalistic exegetical texts in the classical rabbinic literature) saying the great achievements described at the end of Parshat Vayigash did not last long and the lack of space indicates this short period. This seems strange since the Torah tells us specifically that the hard times started much later.

In the beginning of next week’s parsha we read: “Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Ex 1; 8-10)
But now, we’re still in the book of Genesis, Jacob is still alive, Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt and the family is doing very well. Hence the question why does Rashi “jump ahead”? Some suggest that the first clues to the upcoming slavery can be found in our parsha.

Following the passing of Jacob we read: “and when the wailing period was over, Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court, saying, “Do me this favor, and lay this appeal before Pharaoh: ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die. Be sure to bury me in the grave which I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.” Now, therefore, let me go up and bury my father; then I shall return.’” (Gen 50; 4-5)

Is this the way the kingdom’s viceroy speaks? Does the vice president need to go thru a protocol of bureaucracy just to speak with the president? Why does the Torah tell us that Joseph used middle-men to approach Pharaoh? Couldn’t he just “knock on Pharaoh’s door”?! Does someone in Joseph’s position needs “a favor” and need to “lay a special appeal” because he needs couple of personal days to bury his dad?! Perhaps Joseph’s status was no longer as strong as described earlier thus we see the beginning of the decline leading to the slavery later?!

I would like to suggest that Joseph’s political and social status at this point was as strong as ever and perhaps there’s another reason for his unusual behavior. Joseph is the viceroy of the strongest empire of that time; he’s married to royalty, he speaks like an Egyptian and he’s dressed like an Egyptian, has an Egyptian name and he has achieved the “dream”. Now, it’s the moment of truth, has he completely assimilated, or has he remained true to his real identity underneath?!

When people die, they want to get buried in the land most significant to them, to unite with the land with which they have a personal and sentimental connection. Jacob understood that Pharaoh expects Joseph and his family, in exchange to all the goodness bestowed on them, to become not only lawful citizens, but to show complete loyalty to their new homeland, Egypt, assimilate and become part of the Egyptian nation. But for Jacob this was unacceptable.
Jacob, insisted that in spite of his children and grandchildren integrating in Egypt, Israel and not Egypt will forever be their true homeland.

Jacob understood this would be Joseph’s big test and therefore he insisted (Joseph had to take an oath) to be buried in Israel. This act will forever determine the true identity of his descendants. Joseph also understood that Pharaoh will be surprised by Jacob’s request. It meant rejecting Pharaoh’s vision of becoming an integral and inseparable part of the world’s most powerful kingdom. This was a sensible and complex issue and therefore Joseph had to go thru middlemen and channels of bureaucracy.

In that moment Joseph also understands the choice he and his family will have to make: live and die as Egyptians and completely assimilate or live and die as Jews a minority that will never be fully accepted by Egyptian society and perhaps persecuted. Rashi was right, this realization was the beginning of slavery. Joseph and his family had everything in Egypt but as long as they were determined to live as Jews, slavery and persecution were only a matter to time. Jacob’s passing crystalised the fact that their prosperity is temporary, short as the distance from one pasuk (sentence) to the other. No spaces, no new paragraph. The land of Egypt is going to be closed for the Jews just like following exiles.

At the very end of the parsha we read how Joseph decided: “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” (Gen 50; 24-25)

Throughout the generations the question among us who live in diaspora, is still reverberating: what would be our choice?!

Shabbat Shalom