Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Vayehi (Torah)

The Denouement

And so, Sefer Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. In this week’s portion, the high drama and pitched tension between Joseph and his brothers has come to an end: Joseph has revealed himself to his brothers; old father Yaakov has come down to Egypt; the extended clan, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren and wives and flocks, have settled in the Land of Goshen. After all this comes the denouement: Jacob’s death-bed scene, surrounded by his sons, in which each one is blessed according to his unique characteristics; and the ceremony surrounding his death and the return of his bones to the Land of Canaan.

Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik, in the collection Divrei hashkafa, comments that Vayehi may be read as a self-contained, parenthetical unit, not really needed to advance the ”action” or “plot.” The opening chapter of Exodus is a natural sequel to the end of Vayigash, with its inventory of the 66 members of the family who descend to Egypt (46:8-27), and closing with the verse: “So the children of Israel dwelt in the land of Egyip, in the land of Goshen; and they took possession of it and were fruitful and exceedingly multiplied“ (47:27). This verse serves as a kind of peroration, providing all the information needed to begin reading Exod 1:1. All that follows it is a kind of summation and “summing up” of the life of Jacob, and his message and legacy to the next generations.

Some questions that present themselves:

1. What is the significance of the scene involving Ephraim and Manesseh (Ch. 48)? After the consecration of the tribe of Levi to serve as assistants to the priests in the Temple, the Levites were removed from the count of the twelve tribes; to compensate, Ephraim and Manasseh were elevated to the status of full tribes in their own right. But all this, at this point, is still in the future. And why the business with the switching of the hands, giving preference to Ephraim? The shifting of the birthright to someone other than the actual firstborn is a common theme both in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible: Jacob and Esau, Judah as against Reuben; but here, the aspect of transferring the blessing is shown in graphic, striking terms. Joseph places Manasseh, the firstborn to his left, opposite the right hand of the blessing-conferring grandfather; the latter very deliberately crosses his hands, so that the right hand, symbol of seniority, may rest on the head of Ephraim. What is going on here?

What did Yaakov see in Ephraim? Is this a prophetic anticipation of the centrality of Ephraim, as the leading tribe in the northern kingdom? How does the evaluation of the two sons here relate to the standing of the tribes and their respective kingdoms in later history? Jeroboam ben Nebath, who led the secession of the northern tribes after the death of Solomon, is seen by the Sages as a largely negative figure, erecting golden calves at Bethel and Dan so as to consolidate his rule. Notwithstanding that, the origins of his secession movement is painted in a sympathetic light, having been decreed by the prophet Ahiyah the Shilonite, and after Rehoboam son of Solomon, listening to his “young Turks” rather than to the older courtiers and royal advisors, decides to tax the people without mercy, seeing his extravagant life-style as his royal prerogative. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kings 12:11).

2. The final verse of this chapter is an enigma: “I have given to you above your brothers one mountain slope [shechem; a pun on the name of the town?] that I took from the hand of the Amorite, with my sword and with my bow.”

3. Jacobs blessing to the tribes (Ch. 49:1ff.) begins with the seemingly mantic saying: “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell what shall befall you in the latter day.” But immediately he turns to the detailed blessings of individual tribes with the words: “Assemble and hear, o sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father…”

This transition may be seen in two possible ways. A possible straightforward reading is that what follows—the terse description of the character and destiny of each of the sons/tribes—is all that is in fact meant by “what shall befall you in the latter days”: i.e., what will happen to the respective son’s descendants, turned tribes, during the near historical future. And indeed, each of the blessings concerns itself with the character and destiny (including geographical location; role within the complex of the tribal amphictony; etc.) of each of the twelve tribe. But the Midrash sees this as a non-sequitur: Yaakov, on his deathbed, and thus already half-way within a spiritual world, wished to disclose eschatological secrets, the entire history of the Jewish people down to the dim, faraway recesses of ultimate redemption. “He wished to reveal to them the End, and the Shekhinah departed from him.”

There is a certain ambivalence in Judaism about attempts to “reveal the End,” to engage overly much in speculation and calculation of the End. On one level: if an individual (or a people) knows the future, with certainty, this may sap their moral strength to engage in any meaningful effort. And, if they cannot really be known, then they are little more than a waste of time. Maimonides, in the final chapter of Hilkhot Melakhim (Laws of Kings), states that “A person ought not to engage overly much in these things, as they lead to neither the fear nor the love of God.” (This was perhaps Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz ’s favorite quote from Rambam, which he would proclaim at any and all occasions, even at a casual meeting on the bus). But on a deeper level, there is a sense of both danger and of sanctity associated with knowledge of the End. Eschatology is a Divine realm, a kind of revelation of God’s face, of which “No man shall see me and live.”

3. In the final verses of Genesis, after Jacob’s funeral and the return of the brothers to Egypt, their fear of Joseph and that he will somehow at last “repay” them for their youthful crime against him, once again surfaces (50:15). But he assures them, “even though you thought to do evil against me, God thought it for the good” (v. 20). Here, at the end, we see not only the ongoing contrition of the brothers, but Joseph’s own teshuva (repentance): in the end, he sees himself as no more than an instrument of Divine Providence, foregoing any egocentric thoughts of vengeance against his brothers.


My wife reminds me that there are two parshiyot whose titles refer to life, hayyim: Hayyei Sarah and Vayehi; yet both of these in fact record the death of their principles. Perhaps the idea is that life is somehow defined by the awareness of death as a limiting factor—the fact of death making life itself that more precious and poignant, because of its very uncertainty.

Miketz: How filled with human insight even the passing descriptions in the Torah are! At Gen 43:30, when the brothers return to Egypt, this time with Benjamin, whom they present to Joseph, still playing the role of the alien vizier to the king: “and Joseph hurried, because his mercies were stirred up and he wanted to weep; and he went into [his] room and wept there: and he washed his face and went out, and held back…” This is a striking portrait of a man playing the role of the tough, powerful authority with the stiff upper lip, but who inside is soft and emotional and wishes that he could give vent openly to his feelings. The Rav once said that it was this tender side within Joseph that was his undoing, and made him less suitable for leadership of the tribes than was Judah (see HY I: Vayigash).

43:34: “And they drank and became drunk with him.” This is the only description in the Bible of a group enjoying convivial drunkenness together. The banquet Joseph spread for his brothers includes not only good food and wine, but actual drinking to the point of intoxication. One can imagine him waxing maudlin and sentimental, perhaps making double-entendres alluding to the true situation—but always pulling back at the edge of full disclosure. In any event, this verse is sui generis: only in a handful of places in the Bible are we told that people drank to the point of drunkenness, and there it is always individuals: Noah (Gen 9:19-29); Lot (who in 19:31-35 is plied with wine and passes out, to be raped in his drunken stupor; the verb shkr is not used there); in the Scroll of Esther the banquets are called mishteh or mishteh hayayin; Nabal the Carmelite is described as being “very drunk” (1 Sam 25:36); see also Zimri (1 Kgs 16:9); and Ben-Haddad (20: 16). The verb is also used in quite a few prophetic exhortations.

A friend recently noted that there are numerous interesting parallels between the Joseph story and the Purim megillah. It is worthwhile looking for them; we shall discuss it on some other occasion.


Post a Comment

<< Home