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Dan Has Questions About Blessings and Siblings: Parshat Vayechi

01/05/2023 10:06:50 AM


Dan Leemon

I hope you all had a good break from school and found something fun to do amidst all the rain and gloomy weather (I try to remember we need the water very badly, but I miss the sunshine nonetheless).   We have some catching up to do as a lot happened in the three Parashiot we read over the break.

When we last left off, Joseph was languishing in jail and interpreting prisoners’ dreams.  Luckily for him, Pharaoh is having dreams no one can interpret (this is not the Pharaoh who rules over Egypt when we were enslaved, but a prior one).   One of Pharaoh’s staff remembers this guy in jail who was a good dream interpreter, and before long, Joseph is working for Pharaoh, preparing for the seven years of plenty that will be followed by seven years of famine, that were predicted by Pharaoh’s dreams.   During the famine, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt obtain food but do not recognize Joseph (they believe he is dead by then).  After much intrigue where Joseph learns that their father, Jacob (Israel), is still alive, and tests whether his brothers regret selling him and telling their father that he is dead.  Joseph finally tells his brothers who he is, the family is reunited, and Jacob and all the brothers and their families move to Goshen, a province of Egypt.  They all prosper there despite the famine, and Joseph continues to make Pharaoh richer and more powerful by selling food to the starving people in exchange for all their possessions.

Which brings us to the final Parshah of the first book of the Torah, Bereisheet.  The name of the Parsha, Vayechi, means “and he lived”, and refers to Jacob living his final 17 years in Goshen.  As he is dying, he tells Joseph he wants to be buried in Canaan, his homeland, the land God had promised to him, his father Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham.  And he is buried in the cave of Machpelah, which you may recall Abraham had purchased as a burial place for his family.

  • Why do you think Jacob wants to be buried back in Canaan?
  • Does it matter where someone is buried?

Before he dies, Jacob blesses each of his sons.  Each blessing assigns a role for the tribe each son will lead.  Judah’s tribe will produce leaders, lawmakers, and kings.  Priests will come from the tribe of Levi, scholars from Issachar, sea-goers from Zevulun, teachers from Simon, soldiers from Gad, judges from Dan, olive growers from Asher, and so on.  Naphtali is blessed with speed – the swiftness of a deer, Benjamin with the ferociousness of a wolf, and Joseph with beauty and fertility.  Some of the sons are also scolded by Jacob for their part in Joseph’s disappearance and other misdeeds and Jacob’s criticism is pretty specific (for example, Jacob says Reuven is unstable, Simon is angry and violent, Dan is sneaky).  During this process, Jacob favors Joseph by blessing both his sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, and making each the head of his own tribe.

  • Why is each son’s blessing different?  What does that tell you about the kind of father Jacob is?
  • If you were being blessed by your parents, what would you like them to say?
  • If you were going to be the head of a tribe, what would you want your tribe to be known for (and why)?

The brothers all take Jacob’s body back to Canaan to be buried.  When they return, Joseph’s brothers worry that, with Jacob dead, he will seek revenge on them for what they did to him, so they send their messenger to tell him that Jacob’s final wish was that Joseph forgive them.  They are so concerned he will have them killed that they offer to become his slaves.

  • What do you think of this?
  • Is there another way the brothers could have dealt with their concern about what Joseph would do to them?
  • If you were Joseph, how would you have responded to this?

Joseph responds with great generosity.  He effectively says “all’s well that ends well” – that he has ended up a rich and powerful man who is saving many people from starvation.  He forgives them and says he will take good care of them.  Joseph asks that, when he dies, his bones be taken back and buried in Canaan.  He also says something to his brothers that their descendants will need to remember many years in the future:  “God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

  • Why will they need to remember this?  
  • Do you remember what happens in the next book of the Torah?

So ends the first book of our Torah and our ancient history – the beginning of the world, the promise from God never to destroy it, the origins of the Jewish people, the promise of a homeland, and lots of fighting and jealousy between siblings who eventually reconcile.  The Jewish people are comfortably settled in Egypt – but not forever, as there are many generations, hardships, and miracles to come before we return to Canaan!

Shabbat Shalom and happy 2023,


Thu, September 28 2023 13 Tishrei 5784