Yom Rivii, 24 Tishri 5780
Isru Chag Wednesday, 23 October 2019
Parashat Vayechi 2012

Parashat Vayechi by Rabbi Pete Tobias
4 January 2012

This week’s reading brings us to the end of the book of Genesis.· It also brings us the end of Jacob’s life.· Joseph also dies at the very conclusion of the book, but it is Jacob whose life is of greater significance.· As well as occupying half of the book of Genesis (he is born in chapter twenty-five and is buried in chapter fifty), Jacob’s name was changed to Israel and those who settled in, and escaped from, Egypt, not to mention all their descendants (i.e. us) are the Children of Israel.

The death of a patriarchal or matriarchal figure is a crucial life cycle moment moment. The legacy passed on to their descendants is filled with significance.· It enables the next generation to contemplate their relationship with the deceased, and also allows the deceased to have their final say as they effectively pass judgment on their offspring.

It’s not surprising, then, that death-bed scenes or the reading of Wills often form the basis for comedy sketches.·However dark the humour might appear on such an occasion, it is an opportunity for light heartedness.· Perhaps this is an escape valve for dealing with the grief of bereavement.· Whatever the reason, I could not help thinking of an old skit from a 1950s record entitled ‘You Don’t Have to be Jewish’ which, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I managed to discover here. (The second sketch on the clip makes an interesting point that might be picked up in relation to Sh’mot, about the Israelites being saved because they did not change their names, but that’s for next week!)

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Jacob’s ‘Will’ takes the form of a poem, ostensibly delivered by Jacob himself, presumably to each of his twelve sons gathered around his death bed.· I say ostensibly, because there is good historical evidence to suggest that it is highly unlikely that all twelve of Jacob’s sons as depicted in Genesis were related to one another or even lived at the same time.· Their relative age was a reflection of the length of time that they had actually dwelt in the land of Canaan – Reuben was the oldest because he had lived there the longest, while Benjamin was the last of the twelve tribes to arrive and settle in the land, making him the youngest (and also the fiercest as his father’s blessing indicates, calling him a ‘ravenous wolf’).

If the twelve sons of Jacob are not actually his twelve sons, but rather, representatives of the different tribal groups that were eventually to unite and call themselves Israel, what exactly is taking place in the book of Genesis that concludes this week?· The most significant event in the history of the people who would eventually come to be known as the Children of Israel is their eventual escape from slavery in Egypt.· This momentous story would define the covenant between Israel and God, would enshrine in the religion that was eventually to become Judaism a commitment to liberty and justice and would continue to be recalled annually by the descendants of those who experienced it more than three thousand years after it happened.· In order for the Children of Israel to be able to leave Egypt, they had to be there in the first place.· The stories of Joseph, his brothers, his father and Pharaoh that have occupied our Torah readings for the last few weeks serve a simple purpose.· They ensure that the various tribes that will eventually be known as Israel are in Egypt, ready to depart.

The question of which of the tribes actually were in Egypt and took part in the Exodus is not something to consider in this week’s portion.· What is intriguing, from a historical point of view, is the nature of the various blessings bestowed upon Jacob’s sons in the poem that is recited from his deathbed.· Although it purports to show what Jacob considered to be the relative merits of his own sons (and he was distinctly unimpressed with some of them!) it is more appropriate to read this ‘blessing’ as a summary of the relative power and influence of the twelve tribes.

Although he is the ‘oldest’, the place of Reuben is dismissed by Jacob (reflected in the fact that he features in the opening story of Joseph, but is replaced by Judah as the spokesman in all subsequent encounters). Many of the other ‘brothers’ are described in single verses, perhaps referring to specific historical incidents involving that particular tribal group (e.g. the description of Gad), geographical location (Zebulun) or skill (Asher).

It cannot be a coincidence that the two ‘brothers’ who receive the longest and most detailed references in Jacob’s blessing are Judah and Joseph.· Each of them merits five substantial verses from their father, significantly more than the others.· Of the two, it would appear that Joseph receives greater blessing (a reality that is certainly reflected throughout the Genesis account of the relationship between Jacob and Joseph).

Viewed from a later historical perspective, the reason for the prominence of Judah and Joseph becomes clearer.·Israelite history unfolds into a story of two rival groups: Israel and Judah.· They will be briefly united under the rule of David, but the divisions between the North and South are exacerbated by Solomon’s reign, leading to a renewed split on David’s son’s death. The prophets and chroniclers of the time refer to the northern kingdom as Ephraim (Joseph’s son; e.g. Hosea 6:4, 11:8) or even as ‘The House of Joseph’, set in opposition to ‘The House of Judah’. (eg Ezekiel 37:19), emphasising both the opposition between these two groups but also their prominence relative to the other ten tribes.

That Jacob’s ‘blessing’ is a reflection of subsequent historical fact is borne out by his opening statement in chapter forty-nine when he tells his sons to ‘gather round, so that he can tell them what is to happen to them in days to come.’· So, as we bid farewell to Jacob, and prepare to embark on the events that will lead to the single most important event in the history of our people, perhaps this is a moment to reflect on the political in-fighting that would come to dominate the lives of those who chose to remember and be defined by that moment.