Jacob’s Life Cut Short
ויחי יעקב בארץ מצרים שבע עשרה שנה ויהי ימי יעקב שני חייו שבע שנים וארבעים ומאת שנה
“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt… and the years of his life were 147 years” (Bereishit 47:28).
According to the Midrash, G-d intended for Jacob to live 180 years, as did his father Isaac. The reason why Jacob’s life was shortened appears earlier in the same chapter: When Joseph introduced his father to Pharaoh, and the king asked how old he was, the Torah says, “Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojourning’ ” (Bereishit 47:7-9).
When Jacob said these words, G-d declared, “I saved you from Esau and from Laban, and I saw to it that Dina and Joseph were returned safely to you, and you still describe your years as ‘few and miserable’? I swear that the number of years equal to the [33 Hebrew] words beginning with ‘And Jacob said’ through ‘the days of their sojourning’ will be subtracted from your life. For Isaac, your father, lived for 180 years, and you will live to only the age of 147 — 33 years fewer.”
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz asks the following question: If we count the Hebrew words in Jacob’s response to Pharaoh’s question we find only 25. In order to find 33 words, we must count from the beginning of Pharaoh’s question to Jacob, not only from Jacob’s response. Now, it is not hard to understand why G-d might be upset with Jacob for viewing his years as “few and miserable.” But why should Jacob be blamed for Pharaoh’s inquiry as to his age? This, surely, was not Jacob’s fault!
Tosafot explains that to Pharaoh, Jacob looked like someone who was aged beyond his years. In modern terms, Pharaoh was saying, “Wow! You look like you’ve seen some rough times. How old are you, anyway?” Jacob’s response seems more appropriate now. He was not just complaining, but affirming Pharaoh’s impression and addressing his question. “I am younger than I seem,” Jacob answered, “and the reason I look this way is because I have had a life filled with pain.”
Our forefathers, whose lives were destined to be studied and emulated by their descendants for all time, lived on a plane unimaginable to us. At their level, every nuance of every action brought consequences, both pleasant and unpleasant. Most of us would never be able to live on such a level. But we can still learn a crucial lesson from this Midrash. We can strive to be aware not only of what we say, but also for the “vibes” we project.
No matter how difficult a situation may seem, we are still blessed with the gift of life itself — a gift so precious that, if we pause to think about it, will fill us with contentment and cause us to radiate a constant sense of gratitude to G-d. If we cultivate this attitude, not only will we be happier, we will also project our happiness outward and affect the lives of everyone around us.
RABBI ELI GEWIRTZ
אפרים ומנשה כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי…ויברכם ביום ההוא לאמור בך יברך ישראל לאמר ישמך א-לקים כאפרים וכמנשה וישם את אפרים לפני מנשה
“Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon…So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘By you shall Israel bless saying, May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ – and he put Ephraim before Manasseh.” (Bereishit 48:5, 20)
While on his deathbed, Jacob gathered his children to give them individual blessings. Before commencing these blessings, Jacob took note of Joseph’s two children, Ephraim and Mannaseh, and singled them out for a special privilege – that they would share in the distribution of the land of Israel like his own children, Reuben and Simon. This special privilege accorded to Ephraim and Mannaseh is curious. Why would Jacob place two (and only two) of his grandchildren on par with his sons? Also noteworthy is the fact that he mentioned Ephraim before Mannaseh, despite the fact that Mannaseh was the older of the two.
When blessing these two grandchildren, Jacob again reversed the age order and blessed Ephraim before Mannaseh.
These two acts of apparent favoritism are especially troubling in light of the lesson Jacob should have learned from the damage caused by giving an especially fine piece of clothing to his son Joseph (see Bereishit 37:3). As the Talmud (Megillah, 16b) and the commentaries (see Tosafot, Shabbos, 10b) explain, the jealousy this aroused was the cause of the harsh treatment of the Jews in Egypt!
In his work Emet L’Yaakov, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky of blessed memory (1891-1986) explains that Joseph’s children required special treatment and a special blessing because they were born in Egypt and did not benefit from growing up in Jacob’s spiritually pristine environment. Fearing that they would be adversely affected by their surrounding culture, he had no choice but to place them on par with his own children. His blessing, which obviously involved more than a physical share in the land of Israel, was the result of his keen foresight of Ephraim and Mannaseh’s unique needs.
Rabbi Kamenetsky further establishes that when Mannaseh were born, Joseph himself felt a stronger attachment to Jacob than he did when Ephraim was born. At that point, Joseph was already getting comfortable in his Egyptian surroundings. These divergent perspectives within Joseph, as demonstrated by Rabbi Kamenetsky, were subtly evident in Ephraim and Mannaseh’s lives. The potential for a spiritually harmful impact from growing up in Egypt was therefore greater for Ephraim than for Mannaseh. It was with this in mind that Jacob felt compelled to bless Ephraim before Mannaseh.
As parents, we are often confronted with situations in which choices need to be made between conflicting considerations. Do we need to give comparable privileges to each child or is it sometimes preferable to select one child for special treatment? Should we send the child to the school with a greater academic record or to the one where she is likely to have better friends? Should we move to the more ascetically pleasing neighborhood or to the one with a synagogue nearby?
The different examples of Jacob seemingly playing favorites should serve as a lesson that there are no hard and fast rules. Generally speaking though, the overriding consideration is the long-term spiritual benefit for us and our children.
בך יברך ישראל לאמר ישמך אלקם כאפרים וכמנשה
“Through you shall the People of Israel bless, saying: ‘May G-d make you as Ephraim and Mannaseh.’” (Bereishit 48:20)
In this week’s parsha, Jacob blesses Joseph’s two children, Ephraim and Mannaseh and elevates them to the status of tribes, equating them with their uncles, Jacob’s other children. Essentially, this meant that they would each have their separate shares in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Jacob’s grandchildren. Moreover, Jacob blessed them that all Jews should bless their children that they should grow to become like Ephraim and Mannaseh. “He blessed them on that day saying: ‘Through you shall the People of Israel bless saying; ‘May G-d make you as Ephraim and Mannaseh’” (Bereishit 48:19). To this very day, that is the exact wording of the blessing that fathers confer on their sons every Yom Kippur and in many households, every Friday night before the Shabbat meal. What is so unique about Ephraim and Mannaseh that Jacob would want that for all eternity, Jews would bless their children that they should be like them?
One of the many answers given to this question is that there was a quality unique to Ephraim and Mannaseh that Jacob wanted to instill in his progeny. Joseph’s sons grew up in a foreign country, surrounded by people who didn’t share their faith. Yet, they remained true to their values and didn’t allow themselves to be swayed by the prevailing cultural winds of their society. Joseph, their father, had the advantage of being raised in a close knit family led by the patriarch Jacob, as did the rest of the Twelve Tribes. These two brothers were raised in Egypt, a land steeped in immorality, and grew up as children of Egypt’s viceroy, where no pleasure would be denied. Despite all that, they held on to the values of their family and people, and that tenacity was what Jacob saw in them.
Jacob blessed them on his deathbed. He knew that his children were standing on the threshold of a long and arduous exile, and that it would portend the many subsequent exiles. He therefore wanted to give his descendants role models that they could look to for inspiration in trying times, when assimilation would beckon and Jewish identity would wane.
This blessing seems to have really made its mark on the Jewish people. In all corners of the world, Jews have been able to maintain their faith despite being surrounded by influences that try to strip them of their Jewish identity. Some of the greatest examples of people who were able to follow in Ephraim and Mannaseh’s footsteps were the Cantonists, young Russian Jewish children who were pressed into the Russian Army for 25 years at the tender age of seven or eight. They had every vestige of Judaism ripped away from them. There is even an account of a General Salov who had a party in 1845 in which two servants brought out a massive crate filled with thousands of pairs of tefillin that had been confiscated from Cantonist conscripts.
Remarkably, thousands of these Cantonists maintained their faith, refused to eat non-kosher meat, refused to work or eat on Yom Kippur, and as soon as they got out, they rejoined the Jewish communities from which they were torn.
A story is told of one Russian community where they would give the honor of leading the ne’ilah service of Yom Kippur to a cantonist, and every year he would start with the following statement: “Master of the Universe, I am not here to pray for children, because I spent my child rearing years serving the Czar. I am not here to pray for my sustenance because my meager army pension provides for my daily food. I am not here to pray for a future because I have no future. The one thing I want to pray for is, ‘Yisgadal VeYiskadash Shmei Rabah,’ May Your great name be uplifted and sanctified…” This cantonist, after spending 25 years removed from all vestiges of Judaism, was able to hold onto his heritage, and wanted nothing more than to sanctify G-d.
Our children today, even those in vibrant Jewish communities, are faced with so many distractions which can draw them away from the values of their tradition. In such confusing times, it is as important as ever to bless our children that they be like Ephraim and Manasseh: people who stood out, stood up, and did what was right despite their environmental challenges.
The Key to Happiness
וירא מנחה כי טוב ואת הארץ כי נעמה ויט שכמו… ויהי למס עובד
“For he saw a resting place that it was good, and the land that it was pleasant. And he bowed his shoulder to bear a heavy load” (Bereishit 49:15).
Prior to his death, Jacob gathered together his twelve sons, who represented the twelve tribes from which all Jews would descend, and gave each of them a blessing uniquely suited to his specific role within the Jewish nation. The above blessing was given to Issachar, whose descendants are associated with Torah study.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the great mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of the Mir Yeshivah in Europe, points out an apparent contradiction in the verse. It begins by referring to the comfortable life of tranquility and the pleasant land enjoyed by the tribe of Issachar. However, Jacob describes this life of tranquility as one in which he would bend his shoulder to work hard and carry a weighty burden.
During World War II, all of European Jewry was in shambles. Even those who managed to hide or escape lived with dread for their family members. In the midst of all of this unprecedented destruction and uncertainty, the students of the Mir Yeshivah stuck together and fled across Russia to Japan, China, and ultimately to freedom in the United States.
During one stage of their flight, they were on a boat in choppy waters. Many of those on board wondered if they would ever reach their destination. The head of the yeshivah, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, was completely absorbed in the study of a difficult book. Somebody approached him for guidance and comfort, asking, “Where are we holding?” Rabbi Chaim, oblivious to the danger, thought the man was referring to his book and answered innocently, “Chapter three.”
Rabbi Levovitz explains that Jacob was teaching us that the true definition of peace and tranquility is the exact opposite of what people are accustomed to thinking — that true calm and serenity can only be found on a quiet beach, curled up with a good book and a martini, with nobody around to disturb us. While this is indeed an appealing image, it restricts our inner state and makes us dependent on factors beyond our control, implying that if we are unable to be in the situation and circumstances that we would prefer, then inner bliss is unfortunately unattainable. After a bit of reflection, we realize that this could hardly be the meaning of true inner tranquility and satisfaction.
The Torah teaches us that our mission in this world is to rise above whatever situations life may throw our way. To focus inward, not outward. If we carry within ourselves an untouchable reserve of inner joy and serenity, we will be able to remain happy and calm throughout life’s journeys and tests, which are beyond our control. By blessing Issachar and his descendants to carry within themselves the yoke of studying Torah and doing mitzvot, Jacob was revealing to them — and to us — the key to happiness and peace.
כל אלה שבטי ישראל שנים עשר וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם ויברך אותם איש אשר כברכתו ברך אתם
“…And this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them; he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.” (Bereishit 49:28)
In his last act, Jacob’s blessed his 12 sons, each according to his unique talents and abilities, as well as his needs for the future. (Bereishit 49: 3 – 47). However, after he concluded blessing each son individually, Jacob blessed all of the brothers collectively.
What was the purpose of this added blessing? Rashi explains that with this final blessing, each brother received the blessing of every other brother. For example, Judah was blessed with the strength of a lion (Bereishit 49:9). Jacob’s final blessing gave the rest of his sons this character trait as well. This explanation, however, raises a new question: If each brother essentially received the same blessing as all the rest, what was the purpose of blessing them individually?
Rabbi Judah Loew, otherwise known as the The Maharal of Prague, answers that Jacob’s final blessing did not render his sons equal in all respects. Each one remained strongest in the area in which he was individually blessed. However, Jacob’s final blessing did confer an aspect of each brother’s blessing on all the rest. Therefore, Judah was indeed blessed with a higher level of strength and power than his brothers. However, his brothers now gained a certain measure of this character trait as well.
The question now is why did the brothers need a certain degree of each blessing? Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz (Dean of the Jerusalem Kollel) explains that while a person may excel in a certain area, he must also develop other qualities that do not necessarily come naturally to him. This concept has numerous applications in our daily lives. Each of us acts in many capacities – we are fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, friends, children, teachers, colleagues and so on. A person, for example, may be a skilled lawyer. However, if this skill becomes his primary focus in life, it will be to the detriment of his wife and family and threaten the very blessing it was designed to provide in the first place. Jacob’s final blessing, therefore, allowed each son’s primary blessing to express itself productively by balancing that blessing with the blessings of the other brothers.
The Ohr HaChaim commentary adds a further dimension to our understanding of Jacob’s additional blessing. Jacob desired that his blessings not only benefit his sons individually but also the Jewish people as a whole. The more each brother fulfilled his own potential, the better off the entire Jewish people would be. Rather than drawing from the others, this blessing sought to help each son succeed so well that his blessing would naturally overflow to the benefit of the others. It also encouraged a sense of good will, rather than jealousy and competition.
The following story illustrates this concept: There was once a teacher who could not motivate his students without running contests and quizzes, and promising elaborate prizes to the students who answered the most questions correctly. His strategy, however, completely backfired. Instead of helping the majority of the students, only the very talented students “succeeded,” leaving the rest far behind. To make matters worse, each time one of the students gave a correct answer, a chorus of “boos” resounded through the classroom. Eventually, the teacher came up with a radical idea. Instead of rewarding the student who got the most points, he decided to reward the entire class if they earned a certain number of cumulative points together. In one fell swoop, the atmosphere in the classroom changed from competition to cooperation. Instead of booing each other, the kids now cheered each other on to get the right answers. In short, they all benefited from what each brought to the table.
Each of us has unique talents and abilities that we draw upon as we make our way in life. These “gifts” however, are not just tools to get ahead in the world, nor are they the be-all and end-all of who we are. Rather, they are the means by which we affect others – our community and the world – in a positive way. On the flip side, when we open ourselves up to incorporating the good traits we find in the people around us – even when those traits that are different than our natural way of being – we bring a more effective sense of balance to everything we do. This, in turn, allows us to use our natural, G-d-given talents in ways that benefit everyone we meet.
וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם ויברך אותם איש אשר כברבתו ברך אותם
“And this is what their father (Jacob) spoke to them and he blessed them; he blessed each (of his sons) according to his appropriate blessing.” (Bereishit 49:28)
Just prior to his death, Jacob gathered his sons together one last time to charge them with continuing his spiritual legacy. In addition to addressing them collectively, Jacob also spoke to each son individually, and our verse seems to indicate that his message to each son was some form of blessing. This is difficult to understand, as Rashi explains Jacob’s final words to Reuben, Simon, and Levi more like words of rebuke than of blessing. How was his harsh criticism considered a blessing?
Rabbi Uri Weissblum answers that we must redefine our understanding of a blessing. If somebody is sick but doesn’t realize it, or perhaps knows that he is sick but is unable to diagnose his illness, a doctor who diagnoses the illness and clarifies its treatment is offering him a tremendous gift. Similarly, if someone has a large pot with a hole in the side, giving him gifts to put in the pot which may fall out will leave him with nothing. A better ‘gift’ would be to bring the hole to his attention so that he may fix it and retain his future acquisitions.
Jacob believed that the most appropriate “blessing” he could offer his three eldest sons was to point out the characteristics which needed improvement (Reuben’s impulsiveness and Simon and Levi’s anger). Calling their spiritual illnesses to their attention would allow them to “plug the holes,” become whole, and ready for future blessings.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883) points out that everybody has his own personal “holes” which need fixing. He suggests that this is the intent of the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (4:2) וברוח מן העבירה – a person should flee from “the sin.” Rabbi Salanter explains that every person has within himself a bad character trait at the root of his personal struggles. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) attempts to disguise this trait so as to prevent its identification and cure. By calling attention to their individual weak spots, Jacob was indeed giving his sons a tremendous blessing.
The lesson of Jacob’s final words wasn’t limited to his immediate children. It is relevant to everyone. Jacob teaches us that it is not a person’s sins or what lot in life a person receives that is critical, but rather what he makes of the ‘deck he is dealt.’ Jacob left this world by teaching us that if a person acknowledges and learns from his flaws and difficulties, he can turn even his biggest mistakes into the greatest of blessings.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Jacob was growing old. He summoned his son Joseph, who as Viceroy (second in command) of Egypt wielded great power, and asked him to swear not to bury him in Egypt. “I will lie [to rest] with my fathers,” Jacob insisted. “Perform this kindness for me; carry me out of Egypt and bury me in [my fathers’] grave.” Jacob then asked Joseph to swear a second time (Bereishit 47:29-31).
- Jacob stressed that he did not want to be buried in Egypt. Since the immortal soul, the neshamah, leaves the body upon death, what difference would it make where he was buried?
- Jacob asked Joseph to swear that he would fulfill his last wish. Joseph loved his father dearly, was bound by the laws of “honoring thy father,” and would surely want to fulfill his father’s dying wish! Why might Jacob have insisted that Joseph swear to do his duty — not once, but twice?
- As Joseph’s father, Jacob was certainly within his rights to make a request as to his final burial place. Why does Jacob call this a “kindness”?
Why would Jacob only make a personal request (Bereishit 47:29) that Joseph bury him in the land of Israel (“if I have found favor in your eyes”), which Joseph could choose to deny, instead of commanding him to do so which he would then be obligated to do as an expression of kibbud av (honoring his father through fulfilling his request)? (Maharil Diskin)
In blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob crossed his hands in order to place his stronger right hand on the younger Ephraim and his weaker left hand on the older Manasseh(Bereishit 48:14). Wouldn’t it have been easier to switch their positions so that he could extend his hands straight across from him onto the appropriate children? (Taam V’Daas by Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, MiTzion Mich’lal Yofee by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl)
Prior to his death, Jacob gave a unique blessing to each of his twelve sons, who were the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. He also blessed Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim. The blessings described the future role each of the tribes would play within the Jewish nation throughout the generations.
- How can a person declare before a child is born what his talents and mission will be, and how can we reconcile this concept with the fundamental Jewish belief that a person has free choice regarding his actions and life decisions?
- When Jacob blessed Manasseh and Ephraim, he placed his right hand (symbolizing strength and greatness) over Ephraim’s head, while using his weaker left hand to bless the older son Manasseh. Although Jacob knew from experience that there was ill-will generated by favoring Joseph over his brothers, he nevertheless seemed to favor the younger son over the older. What lessons may be gleaned from here about giving differential treatment to one’s children?
Then Jacob called for his sons and said, “Assemble yourselves and I will tell you what will befall you in the End of Days. Gather yourselves and listen to Israel your father. Reuben, you are my firstborn…” (Bereishit 49:1-3)
As the verse describes, Jacob intended to tell his children what to expect in “the end of days,” which as the commentaries explain, refers to the point in time when the exile would end and the Messiah would arrive. The sentence beginning with “Reuben, you are my firstborn…” rather abruptly ends the discussion about the End of Days and describes the first of the blessings Jacob gave each of his children.
Based on the Midrash, Rashi explains this change in course as follows: Jacob intended to tell his children when the Messiah would come, but G-d removed His Divine presence from Jacob, preventing him from sharing this information.
1) As the Midrash indicates, G-d only prevented Jacob from telling his children when the exile would end, not from telling them that there would be an end to the exile. Other than satisfying his children’s potential curiosity, why would Jacob have wanted to tell when the exile would end if none of his children could possibly have lived until then?
2) Assuming Jacob considered it important, why would G-d have prevented him from sharing this information?
3) Why would the Torah record Jacob’s intentions and G-d preventing its realization? As G-d obviously disagreed with Jacob’s reasoning, the Torah could seemingly have left out this section!
Rashi writes (Bereishit 49:5) that Jacob cursed the plans of Simon and Levi to kill Joseph even though they never came to fruition. According to the Talmudic maxim (Kiddushin 40a) that Hashem doesn’t punish a person for evil plans unless they actually come to fruition, why did Jacob hold them accountable for a scheme that even Hashem wouldn’t punish them for? (Sifsei Chochomim)
Q: The blessing which Jacob gave to Judah (Bereishit 49:8-12) contains all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet except for the letter ז (zayin). What is the significance of this missing letter?
A: Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that when spelled out fully, the letter ז (zayin) is written זיין, which is also the Hebrew word for weapons. The tribe of Judah is associated with royalty, and Judah’s offspring include King David and his descendants. Although many nations associate the power of the ruler with military might and prowess, the Jewish king rules because he was selected by Hashem. Additionally, the wars which he leads the Jewish people to fight are also won not through military strength and an abundance of advanced weaponry, but through Divine assistance. The blessing given to the tribe associated with the king omits the letter which means weapons in order to hint to the true Source of his dominion. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Jacob blessed the tribe of Issachar, whose descendants are known for their dedication to Torah study, by comparing them to a donkey (Bereishit 49:14). What is the significance of comparing the tribe of Torah scholars specifically to a donkey?
A: Rabbi Tzvi Markovitz posits that while the Torah scholars also “carry a load” similar to a donkey, this parallel isn’t sufficient, as there are other animals – such as horses – which are also capable of transporting heavy burdens. Rabbi Markovitz points out that all animals carrying loads must inevitably stop to rest, but there is a critical difference in how they do so. When horses stop for a break, their burden must be removed until they are ready to continue, as opposed to donkeys which are able to lie down and rest even while still carrying the weight on their backs.
It is specifically to them that the tribe of Issachar is compared, as those who “carry the load of Torah” must also periodically stop to recharge, but the distinguishing characteristic of true Torah scholars is that even at these moments, they conduct themselves in accord with their year-round behavior, never casting off their “burden” for a moment. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Rashi writes (Shemot 3:18) that when Moses was nervous about whether the Jewish people would accept him as Hashem’s agent to redeem them, Hashem reassured him that when he would announce himself using the phrase (פקד יפקד, Hashem will remember you), they would accept him because they had a tradition from Jacob (Bereishit 50:25) that the redeemer would identify himself using this “secret code.” What value could a secret code possibly have if the entire population was aware of it and capable of using it? (Ramban)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
Moshiach: A Foundation of Judaism
“And Jacob called to his children and he said ‘gather round and I will reveal to you that which will occur to you in the End of Days’” Bereishit 46-1
- He desired to reveal to them the [secret of the] Messianic Era but the Divine Presence [suddenly] left him and he began to discuss other matters – Rashi
• The “End of Days” refers to the Messianic Era… – Ramban
• “I know with perfect certainty that Moshiach will arrive. How long it takes, I will await His coming every day…” – Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith
Even before the Jewish nation was born, knowledge of an eventual Moshiach existed. Jacob was about to delineate the unique roles each of the brothers would occupy in the Jewish nation, but he began by establishing for them that all of their efforts were for the purpose of leading up to a Messianic Era. To deny this, or to give up hope of his arrival, is tantamount to undermining the very foundation of the Jewish nation.
- He desired to reveal to them the [secret of the] Messianic Era but the Divine Presence [suddenly] left him and he began to discuss other matters – Rashi
TRUTH IN KINDNESS
“When Jacob realized that he would soon die, he called for his son Joseph. “If I have found favor in your eyes, place your hand under my thigh and act toward me with kindness and truth, and do not bury me in Egypt.’” Bereishit 47:9
With Kindness And Truth – The kindness shown to the dead is the truest form of kindness in the sense that it’s totally altruistic since the beneficiary will never be able to return the favor. – Rashi
Although Jacob would eventually reward Joseph with the city of Shechem as a reward for his efforts, he had not yet contemplated doing so. – Rivah
With Kindness And Truth – The Hebrew word for kindness is “Emet,” and is comprised of the letters, Aleph, Mem, Tof. Each of these letters represents an integral aspect of the burial process. Aleph is the first letter of the word, “Aron” – casket. Mem is the first letter of the word, “Mitah” – bier. Tof is the first letter of the word, “Tachrichim” – shrouds. – Baal HaTurim
The highest form of kindness is that which best emulates the kindness practiced by the Almighty, wherein there is no hope for recompense for there is nothing that we can do to repay the Almighty for all the kindness He bestows upon us. Attaining this lofty objective however, is a monumental and often impossible task, as it requires that we completely negate our selfish interests. Thus, it is imperative that we seek opportunities to practice kindness, which by virtue of their very nature, offer no possibility for remuneration on the part of the beneficiary. Participating in the mitzvah of escorting the dead to their final resting place is a perfect example of just such a golden opportunity and a deserving recipient of the accolade, “Kindness of Truth.”
ONE FOR ALL
“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years and the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.” Bereishit 47:28
And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt – This introduction would seem to be superfluous for the Torah already supplied us with sufficient information to determine the years of his stay in Egypt? Regardless, what is accomplished by discussing how long he lived in Egypt? Indeed, the point was not to inform us that lived there, or for how long. Rather, the Torah wished to tell us that unlike many others whose existence is limited to themselves, their children, or immediate acquaintances, Jacob’s existence in Egypt positively affected the entire land. For the merit of a righteous person is such that he benefits his entire environment. When Jacob arrived in Egypt for the first time, he blessed Pharaoh that the famine should cease and his blessing was heeded. This alleviated the suffering of the entire Land. Therefore, the verse informs us that “Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years; i.e. all seventeen years, his life was that of Egypt. – Meshech Chochmah
Judaism teaches that the Almighty sustains the universe, and if He would withdraw from it for even one millisecond, it would cease to exist. Just as we find in contemporary life that the poor must rely on the wealthy to survive, in spiritual matters the same is true as well. Not every person, city, state, or country, contains sufficient spiritual merits to earn their sustenance. Instead, the spiritually wealthy, the righteous among us, carry the load on behalf of the spiritually deficient. One righteous person, assuming he’s sufficiently endowed with merits, can sustain an entire country.
TEAR ME AWAY
“And I, when I came from Padan, Rachel died unto me in the land of Canaan, on the road, while there was yet a stretch of land, before coming to Ephroth. I buried her there on the road to Ephroth, which is Beth Lehem.” Bereishit 48:7
I buried her on the road – And I did not carry her even to Beth Lehem in order to bring her to a [settled] land, and I know that you possibly harbor resentment toward me for this. Know, however, that it was by the word of G-d that I buried her there so that she might help her descendants when Nebuzradon would send them into exile, and when they would pass by her grave, Rachel would emerge from her grave and cry and beseech mercy from the Almighty for them. – Rashi
Joseph understood that this was an excuse that Jacob was offering because he too knew that his mother passed away on the road. The reason she wasn’t buried in the Cave of Machpelah, however, was because Jacob did not wish to bury two sisters alongside one another, which would not have reflected well upon him or his descendants. Therefore he buried Leah, the first of the sisters whom he had married, in the Cave, and buried Rachel elsewhere. – Ramban
The Zohar offers a penetrating explanation for how Leah came to be buried with Jacob, instead of Rachel who ended up in a roadside tomb to be available for her descendants. Both Rachel and Leah shed tears of prayer to the Almighty during the course of their lives, and those tears left an indelible impact for all time. Leah pleaded to be able to marry a righteous person instead of Esau, her pre-destined mate, whereas Rachel cried over her inability to bear children. Therefore Leah earned the right to spend her afterlife near Jacob, and Rachel secured the ability to advocate on behalf of her children throughout their bitter sojourn in exile. Such is the power of sincere and heartfelt prayer that its effects reverberate for generations!
Who Will Raise Our Children?
“And Jacob saw Joseph’s sons and he asked, ‘whose [children] are these?’ And Joseph responded, ‘these are my children whom God has granted me…” – Bereishit 48:8,9
- It’s not possible that Jacob who had moved to Egypt many years earlier still did not recognize Joseph’s children. Rather, he wondered whether their mother who was born to an Egyptian mother was truly Jewish. Joseph responded by producing the documents that proved that she had converted properly and the children were authentic Jews. – Chiddushei HaGriz Al HaTorah – Ed. Note: Perhaps this was necessary because he was preparing to incorporate them into the Twelve Tribes and therefore felt it necessary to ascertain their Jewish status beyond a shadow of a doubt.
In addition to pondering their Jewish status, Jacob wondered how Joseph accomplished the impossible: raising loyal Jewish children in such a foreign environment? “Whose children are these?” he inquired? To this, Joseph responded by saying that his success lay in the fact that they were his children. All his power and royal duties notwithstanding, he never abrogated his child-raising responsibilities. Contrary to the customary manner of royal families who rarely invest much time in their children, Joseph insisted on raising his children himself and true to his values and therefore succeeded in inculcating within them authentic Jewish values.
“And Israel said to Joseph, ‘To see your face, I never contemplated, and behold, the Almighty has even shown me your offspring.” Bereishit 48:11
I never contemplated – My heart did not allow me to contemplate the thought that I might one day see you again… –Rashi
I never contemplated – The word “Pilolti” [contemplate] refers not only to thinking about, but to seriously contemplate how to bring about a certain result. Jacob said, “I made no plans to ever see you again or worked toward it because I assumed that all hope was lost. I did nothing to change that reality assuming that the matter was closed. Nevertheless, without any input on my end, the Almighty afforded me the opportunity to see not only you, but your children as well.” – HaEmek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin)
The HaEmek Davar adds that Jacob’s point in mentioning how this marvelous result came about without any input on his part, was in order to preface his next words in which he would bless Ephraim and Menasseh. In that blessing, he would surprise them with the news that Ephraim would produce greater offspring than Menasseh, although he was younger and less experienced. He would also reveal that Joseph would be blessed with a double portion, more than all his brothers received. His intent was to teach them that the Almighty has a plan and He needs no input from us to see it through. Sometimes, the least expected result is the one that occurs because He envisioned it that way and there’s nothing we can do to change it.
A FISHY BLESSING
“The Angel who redeemed me from all evil should bless the lads, and let my name be called upon them together with the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be like fish, multiplying within the land.” Bereishit 48:16
May they be like fish – Just as the fish are fruitful and multiply and are not affected by the evil eye. – Rashi
May they be like fish multiplying within the land – Interestingly, in all of the censuses that were taken throughout our years in the desert, the tribes of Menasseh and Ephraim did not number significantly more members than the others. It would appear from this that the blessing was not fulfilled. Jacob qualified the blessing with the words, “Within the land.” Therefore, throughout their time in the desert, this blessing was not applicable. It was only applicable once they entered the land, when they were told by Joshua to enter the forest and locate additional land for their inheritance. – Ksav V’kabbalah quoting the Gaon of Vilna
Why did Jacob choose to bless them like fish, out of the thousands of living creatures? The commentators explain that kosher fish are unique among kosher animals in that once a fish possesses the requisite kosher signs, there is nothing that can make the fish non-kosher. On the other hand, even if kosher animals possess the requisite traits, they can become non-kosher if they are improperly slaughtered, die without slaughter, or possess a critical defect such as a hole in the lung. Therefore Jacob blessed Ephraim and Menashe that they should be like fish, in the sense that they should never lose their pure status. How fitting it is that this is the blessing with which Jewish fathers bless their children on Friday nights and other special occasions.
CAN’T STAND TO LOSE
“Zebulun shall settle by the seashores. He shall be at the ships harbor…Issachar is a strong-boned donkey…” Bereishit 49:13-14
Zebulun…Issachar – Issachar was actually older than Zebulun, but Jacob addressed him first since he was the primary supporter of Issachar and enabled him to study Torah undisturbed. – Medrash Tanchuma, Rashi [Devarim 33:18]
Zebulun…Issachar – Although a merchant is usually apprehensive before setting out on his journey, unsure of whether he’ll be successful, the merchants of the tribe Zebulun could always depart with confidence and joy knowing that the scholars of Issachar were back in their tents studying Torah, which guaranteed their success. – Shach [Devarim 33:18]
The best business deals are those in which both sides profit equally. The partnership of Issachar and Zebulun was a model of just such an arrangement. Issachar’s Torah study provided an assurance of success for Zebulun, which translated into even greater support for Issachar. Torah is truly the greatest investment in that its supporters never stand to lose.
Torah: The Hardest Job Of Them All
“Issachar is a strong-boned donkey crouching between the boundaries.” Bereishit 49:14
- A strong-boned donkey: he carries the yoke of the Torah like a strong donkey loaded with a heavy load. Crouching between the borders: Like a donkey that travels day and night and has nowhere to rest indoors so that when it wishes to rest it crouches between the borders of the cities to where it is carrying merchandise. Rashi
- A mule and his pack are bound together as one. Similarly a Torah scholar is inseparable from his load. Kli Yakar
- “Rabbi Yosi said: ‘Inspire yourself to study Torah for it is not an [automatic] inheritance for you’” Avot 2:12
- “Mankind was created to toil…” Iyov 5:7
Torah is accessible to all but everyone must toil to acquire it. The poorest and wealthiest of Jews must all apply themselves diligently to attain the knowledge of Torah and no one can do the work for you. It is ironic that the most glorious profession in Judaism is compared to a strong-boned donkey. True glory is not reserved for the lottery winner or one who engages in temporal investments. It is reserved for those who focus on the essence of life: Torah study
“And he instructed them and he said, ‘Behold I will be gathered unto my nation, bury me with my fathers, to the cave that is in the field of Ephran the Hittite…There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife, and there I buried Leah.” Bereishit 49:29-31
And there I buried Leah – With these words Jacob wished to establish that the last plot in the Cave of Machpelah was his and not Esau’s. He already buried his wife there and thus, there was no way Esau could lay claim to it. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
A wife is considered one half of her husband. If the first half was buried there, it is only appropriate the second half be buried there as well. – Sifsei Kohein
Ramban explains that Jacob greatly feared Esau’s interference with his plan to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Although Esau had not lived a life of holiness, Jacob knew that in his death, he would wish to be interred with his holy ancestors and would stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Indeed, that is exactly what happened, and that’s why Joseph brought chariots and riders along with him when he ascended to Canaan to bury Jacob. Esau’s grandson attacked them and in the ensuing battle, many of his fighters were captured and brought down to Egypt where Joseph imprisoned them for his entire life. Miraculously, none of Joseph’s brothers or men were harmed in the battle. Upon Joseph’s death, Esau’s grandson escaped and fled to Rome, where he eventually became the monarch. He ruled upon all of Italy and built the first of the grand edifices for which Rome later became famous.
ONE MAN CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
“They came to the threshing place of Atad, which is on the other side of the Jordan, and there they eulogized him and conducted a very great and imposing funeral. He conducted seven days of mourning for his father.” Bereishit 50:10
The Threshing Place Of Atad – So called because it was surrounded with hedges of thorns. Our Sages explained that it’s name derived from an incident that occurred when all the kings of Canaan and princes of Ishmael came to prevent the burial of Jacob. When they saw Joseph’s crown hanging from Jacob’s casket, they all rose and hung their crowns from it, surrounding it with crowns like a threshing floor that is surrounded by a hedge of thorns. – Rashi
A Very Great And Imposing Funeral – There are nine forms of eulogy that can be offered for a deceased individual, depending on his status. In Jacob’s case, all nine forms were offered, so deeply was his loss felt by the assembled. – Rabbenu Bachya
Our sages tell us that even the animals were saddened by the departure of Jacob. Meshech Chochmah explains that the terrible famine that had struck in Egypt had been arrested upon Jacob’s arrival in the merit of his saintliness. Once he passed away however, the famine returned with a vengeance and all of Egypt suffered greatly from man to beast.
KNOWING YOUR PLACE
“And his brothers also went and fell before him and they said, ‘We are servants to you.’ And Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in place of G-d?” Bereishit 50:18,19
For am I in place of G-d – Understand this not as a question, but as a statement of fact. You have nothing to fear for I am in the place of G-d; i.e. I am a G-d-fearing person, committed to serving Him. – Targum Onkelus, Rabbeinu Bachya
For am I in place of G-d – Do I possess the power to harm you even if I wanted to? You were ten against one, yet you could not destroy me because Hashem willed otherwise. Am I to believe that I, one against the rest of you, am capable of harming you? Surely not, for that capacity rests only in G-d’s hands and I am not He. – Rashi
For am I in place of G-d – Firstly, I could not harm you even if I wanted to. Secondly, I am not angry with you because it all turned out for the best. Thirdly, what will people think of me if after bringing you all to live here, I would harm you? Rather, I’ll do quite the opposite. I will sustain you and support you completely. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno renders this a bit differently. Joseph explained to his brothers that he is not G-d’s agent to exact justice from them for whatever G-d will see fit to do to them, He’ll do in His own manner. “I,” said Joseph, “am not empowered to act on His behalf. The Almighty has sufficient means at His disposal to carry out any sentence that He renders without our assistance. It is amazing to think about Joseph’s response to his brothers. If there ever was a person who was justified in harboring anger toward another person, it was Joseph. His manners in dealing with them, and his attitude about the entire matter, are a lesson for every Jew for all time.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Rashi asks why the Torah portion this week is “closed,” that is, with no textual indicator that a new portion has begun. Rashi is not bothered by the fact that Parshat Vayechi begins at verse 28 of Chapter 47. This is not unusual, since the division of scripture into chapters has its origins in the work of an English bishop of the 13th Century and hence does not always conform to the weekly Torah portion or to the context. The Torah’s native division is into parshiyot, sections, divided by an empty space in the Torah scroll either in the middle of a line (parshah setumah — closed parshah) or at the end of a line (parshah petuchah — open parshah). These divisions, of course, date back to the Revelation at Sinai. A second, later sectioning into the larger divisions of the weekly parshah (or sidrah) dates back to Ezra the Scribe at the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Rashi is bothered by the fact that there is no “open” or “closed” parshah division at the beginning of Vayechi (Maharal, Gur Aryeh, Bereishit 47:28).
The patriarch Jacob blessed his sons before his death. To Judah he said, “The staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him shall the obedience of the people be” (Bereishit 49:10). This is understood by most commentaries (Gur Aryeh, ad loc.) as an imperative rather than a prediction. Jacob was commanding his descendants to appoint kings only from the tribe of Judah, and he was declaring that only a descendant of Judah would be the legitimate monarch of the Jewish People, up to and including the time of the Messiah, who will also be a descendant of Judah in a direct line from King David.
Word of the Week
קיויתי — kiviti
Jacob said, “I hoped — קיויתי — kiviti for your salvation, O L-rd” (Bereishit 49:18). The Hebrew word for hope is תקוה — tikvah (as in the anthem of the State of Israel, “Hativkvah” — The Hope). The word is related to the Hebrew word for line, קו — kav (Rav Yosef Gitakilya, Shaarei Zedek, 1). One explanation for this is that the line which keeps a person attached to a lost object is the hope that it will be found and returned. Similarly, the line which has kept the Jewish People attached to the Land of Israel through centuries of exile is our hope of eventual return.
“And Israel placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and he was the younger, and his left on Menasseh, שכל — sikeil his hands, even though Menasseh was the firstborn” (Bereishit 48:14). Onkelos translates sikeil as “he deliberately and knowingly” placed his hands, relating שכל — sikeil to שכל —seichel — intellect. The Rashbam commentary takes a totally opposite position and translates the word as “confused or crossed” his hands, relating שכל to סכל — sicheil — confused or foolish. Rabbi David Kimchi and Sforno understand the phrase as he “sensed” with his hands where he was placing them.
In Maimonides’s 13 Principles of Faith (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin Ch. 10) he states in the fourth principal that it is prohibited to pray to any entity other than G-d. Only G-d has ultimate power, and therefore praying to or beseeching an intermediary is inappropriate. However, we find that Jacob asked an angel to bless his grandchildren (Bereishit 48:16): “The angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless the children…” Also, on Friday night it is customary to sing “Shalom Aleichem” at the table, welcoming angels of peace to our home. In the third verse, we also ask the angels to bless us. How can we do this? The Maharal (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’avodah, 12) understands that while we do not beseech angels, or pray to them, we are however, allowed and empowered to command them at certain times. Jacob did not ask the angel to protect his grandchildren; he commanded the angel to do so. On Friday night, when our souls are elevated and we have an extra degree of spirituality, we are able to command the angels to bless us, and indeed they must obey and do so.
Generally, when a person sneezes others say “bless you” and the “sneezer” says, “thank you.” Is there a traditional Jewish etiquette for sneezing? Rashi (Brachot 53a) states that the custom is to say “asuta” to one who sneezes, which is Aramaic for “[May you] be healed.” The one who sneezes replies “baruch tichyeh” — “may you be blessed” and should then add the verse from the Torah portion this week, “I pray that G-d will help you” (Bereishit 49:18). The reason he should add this verse is based on the idea that when one prays for someone else, and himself needs that very same thing, he will be answered first (Bava Kama 91a), so the sick person (who sneezed) prays for the one who blessed him, hoping that he will be cured speedily (Rabbi Shlomo Luria, Yam Shel Shlomo, Bava Kama 8:64; Mishnah Berurah, Orach Chaim 231).
Parsha at a Glance
Sensing that the end of his life is near, Jacob asks Joseph to swear that he will bury him in the Land of Canaan (Israel), in the Cave of Machpela. Abraham purchased the burial cave from Ephron the Hittite (see Bereishit 23:16-20), and the site now holds the graves of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.
Sometime later, Jacob falls ill. Joseph rushes to his father with Ephraim and Menasseh at his side, in order to secure a blessing for his children before Jacob’s passing. Although Ephraim is the younger of Joseph’s sons, Jacob gives him the blessing of the first-born. Joseph at first protests, but Jacob assures him that he is acting deliberately. Both will bring forth greatness. However, Ephraim’s offspring will be the greater of the two, as Joshua, a descendant of Ephraim, will lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, defeat the Canaanites, and cause the sun and moon to halt in the sky.
Jacob elevates Ephraim and Menasseh to equal status with the other Tribes of Israel, and establishes the custom by which future generations bless their sons in their names. This custom is kept every Friday night at the Shabbat table, when the father blesses his sons with the words, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasseh”
Before his death, Jacob calls his 12 sons to his bedside and attempts to reveal the End of Days. However, G-d prevents him from doing so, and so Jacob blesses his sons, each according to his unique needs and capabilities.
Reuben, the first born, has great strength and ability. He was fitting for kingship and priesthood. However, his flaw of impetuosity caused him to lose both. Simon and Levi’s anger caused them to turn to violence and bloodshed when they killed the city of Shechem and plotted against their brother Joseph. Judah is granted eternal kingship over the Jewish people and abundance in his territory. Zebulun, who supports his brother, Issachar’s Torah study, is blessed with business acumen in sea-faring commerce. Issachar’s strength allows him to spend long hours studying Torah and to defeat his enemies.
Dan will bring forth Sampson, a Judge of Israel who will single-handedly defeat the Philistines. Gad, too, is blessed with the strength of a mighty warrior. The Tribe of Gad went first in the battles to conquer the Canaanites and did not return home until the conquest was complete. Asher’s land will be abundant in produce and olive oil. Naphtali’s crops will ripen swiftly, and their warriors will play a leading role in the battle against the evil general Sisra. (see Judges 4)
Joseph receives an abundant blessing for his beauty, talent and purity, which enabled him to survive the hatred of his brothers and the temptation of Potiphar’s wife. His land will be fertile, even in times of scarce rainfall. Benjamin’s descendants will defeat Israel’s enemies through King Saul, who defeated Moab, Edom and Philistia, and Mordechai, who triumphed over Haman in the Purim story.
Jacob lived in Egypt for the last 17 years of his life and died at the age of 147. Egypt mourned the loss of Jacob for 70 days. Joseph petitioned Pharaoh for permission to bury Jacob in the Land of Canaan. The request is granted, and Pharaoh’s household and the elders of Egypt join Joseph and the brothers in the burial procession.
Vayechi concludes by recounting the end of Joseph’s life. Joseph lived to be 110 years old, and saw he children and grandchildren of Ephraim and Menasseh “raised at his knee.” Before his death, Joseph reveals that G-d will eventually take the Jewish people out of Egypt and back to the Land of Israel. His final request is that his bones be taken out of Egypt when the Jewish people leave.