Yom Rivii, 18 Elul 5779
Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Parashat Va-y'chi 2012

Va-y’chi by Rabbi Alexandra Wright
28 December 2012

Parashat Va-y’chi concludes the Book of Genesis with Jacob’s preparation for death, his blessing of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and his farewell blessing (some might say censure) of his sons.

He gives instructions for burial in the cave of Machpelah, the burial place of his parents and grandparents, and the sedra ends with his funeral, his sons’ return to Egypt and Joseph’s last days.

Although the name of the sedra means ‘And he [Jacob] lived’, the final chapters of Genesis are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the end of life and with the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers.  True, there have been earlier scenes of reunion and understanding (Genesis 45:1-5), but this time, the repair seems to be complete (50:15-21).  Joseph, who lives until the age of 110 years, has spent only the first seventeen years of his life in Canaan.  In spite of the strong emotional connection to his father and younger brother, Benjamin, his imprisonment in Egypt and then swift rise to power and assimilation of Egyptian language, culture and society has made him a stranger to his brothers.

In a midrash that embellishes the story of Joseph and his brothers’ reconciliation, the Rabbis ask – how did the brothers know that he was their own flesh and blood?  They were shepherds, living in tents; Joseph was living the life of an Egyptian courtier, close to Pharaoh, lord over the whole land of Egypt.  He walked not only in the corridors of power, but must also have absorbed Egyptian ways and mores.  He had married an Egyptian woman, brought up children who knew only a life that would have been foreign to Joseph’s brothers and their families.  He had even been given an Egyptian name.

He was, as many have said, the archetypal diaspora Jew whose fortunes had taken him down a very different road from his ancestry and family.  The Rabbis wanted to know whether Joseph was totally unrecognisable, whether the course of his own life had alienated him completely from his Judaism or whether there was a constancy, an essence that had imprinted itself on his consciousness, by which he could still call himself a Jew.

The question, of course, is anachronistic.  But it raises an interesting point about what constitutes Jewish consciousness?  What binds us together as the Jewish people?  The Rabbis give two answers to the question regarding the brothers’ recognition of Joseph.  First, he showed them that he was circumcised and secondly, he spoke to them in Hebrew (Genesis Rabbah 93:10).

Were these the two essential elements of Jewish consciousness and survival for the Rabbis?  The covenant, symbolised not only by circumcision for all males at eight days old, but also the covenant at Sinai; and the language of our heritage, the language that the Rabbis believed brought the world into being and gave us the Torah - Hebrew?

One might argue that these two marks of recognition – brit and Hebrew – are the very things that have separated Jews from other peoples.  They have been the distinctive marks of our difference, ensuring our survival and spiritual preservation.  Even the current debate over circumcision in Germany highlights the struggle to hold on to what Leo Baeck calls our ‘religious possession’ (The Essence of Judaism, Schocken, 1976, p. 260).  The notion of covenant, in its wider sense, implies a unique and special relationship with God, a reciprocal obligation – if we become God’s witnesses, then God, as it were, will be our God.  To quote again from Baeck: ‘The Jewish right to existence was dependent upon the Jews retaining their peculiarity.  All education was directed to this end: to be different was the law of existence’ (p. 261).

And if we were to exist in our ‘peculiarity’, then Hebrew – the Hebrew of the Torah, the texts of midrash and halakhah, prayer and poetry – would be the means of ensuring the survival of the Jewish people.  Hebrew, l’shon ha-kodesh – the language of holiness – again preserved our separateness, our difference.  Hebrew was the language that clothed the customs of prayer and tradition and preserved the religious ideas of our people.

Paradoxically, it is these two things – covenant and language – that not only make us distinctive as a people, but also authorise us to contribute the fruits of our heritage to the greater good of the world.  To be a ‘covenant of peoples’ is to be a ‘light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:6), to bear witness to the teachings of the Torah: to acknowledge God as Creator of heaven and earth and the God who ‘executes judgement for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry’ (Psalm 146.6).

The Rabbis highlighted Joseph’s loyalty to the covenant and his retained knowledge of Hebrew, not because it represented the literal truth of the story of Joseph, but because in a later period as a dispersed people feared for its survival and needed to find new ways to maintain its distinctiveness in the diaspora, the notions of covenant and knowledge of the Hebrew language in the sources of our tradition became crucial to our self-preservation and continued existence.

1 Jacob’s blessing (Genesis 49:1-27) reflects, in much of its poetry, a much later time, referring not to the individual sons of Jacob, but to their tribal descendants – their fortunes and conduct.  It appears to have been inserted into the deathbed narrative about Jacob.