And they all lived happily ever after. That’s what we like to hear at the end of stormy relationships that threaten to disintegrate beyond repair. Because we like to have all the ends tied up in a pretty bow. And it seems that the book of Bereshit, which we complete reading today, supplies us with the goods. After fratricide, broken families, filial enmity and family intrigues, the archetypical soap opera, finally all 12 of Yaacov’s sons are together, around their aged father at his deathbed. Yaacov blesses his sons and dies, Yosef again comforts his brothers, and to complete the story he dies too.
But is it all so good? And not only because we know what’s going to happen in the first chapter of the next book: slavery. The content of our parsha seems calm, but it belies the outer trappings.
Let’s take Yaacov’s blessing to Yosef’s sons. He basically prophesies that the younger Ephraim will outshine the older Menashe. But more importantly, he includes them BOTH as his sons, like Reuven and Shimon. In other words, just as Yosef was treated the favored first-born, he is rewarded with the firstborn benefit of a DOUBLE SHARE. In fact, Ephraim will be the largest of the tribes.
But something goes wrong with Yaacov’s “blessings” to his other 11 children. He says he is going to tell them what will happen to each of them in the future but instead he reverts to history and generalities. The rabbis pick up on that and say that at the moment he was going to foretell the future, with slavery and the division of the nation, his prophetic ability deserted him, as if revealing so much dissension and anguish would have been too much for them, and for him.
We already have the seeds of dissention in these blessings. Ephraim is going to be great. Yehuda is going to be the leader. And which tribes become the leaders of the divided Judea and Israel after Solomon? Ephraim and Yehuda, of course.
But there’s more dissension hidden in the parsha, and it is the consequence of an inability to understand one another. Yosef has repeatedly forgiven his brothers, has attributed their actions to the machinations of God, has sworn to provide for them unconditionally, yet they cannot accept such gracious behavior from a person they had tried to kill. In his position, they would NEVER be able to forgive someone who had treated them as they had treated Yosef.
The story as it unfolds leaves gaps that CHAZAL fill in with great ingenuity. For example, after the funeral cortege for Yaacov in Canaan, right after the brothers return to Egypt, they tell Yosef their father had ordered that Yosef forgive them. Yosef cries, and not for the first time.
What happened during the funeral that led to this behavior? They feared Yosef had kept his anger in check from respect for Yaacov, but now he was free to let his revenge surge forth. CHAZAL paint a different picture, one that underlines the gap between Yosef and his brothers, and the tremendous guilt they bore.
According to Bereshit Rabba (midrash), As the brothers were returning from burying their father, they saw that Yosef turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him. Upon seeing this, they said, “He still bears a grudge in his heart. Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred of us felt.” But in fact, the rabbis say, Joseph’s motive was a pious one—he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle that had occurred for him in that place.
In other words, built up guilt and their own beliefs disturbed their peace.
We also know that Yosef had enslaved all of Egypt. According to the text, the Egyptians were eager to sell themselves as slaves, just to have food, and after the seven bad years the situation just remained unchanged. This was the setting which enabled the Israelites to become slaves several generations hence.
All in all, this parsha, perhaps more than many others, shows that our actions have consequences. Our beliefs, our values, our thought patterns all help to determine what will happen, if not in the immediate future then soon. Eventually. Almost inevitably.
This also helps, indirectly, to explain what can be perceived as the facetious title of the parsha, Vayehi, and he lived. Yaacov dies very soon afterwards. He may have died, but his legacy, his prophesy, his values and beliefs as embodied in the “blessings” he gave his children, live on.
We live in turbulent times, where nature and nurture seem to be competing to see who can do more damage to our world and to us. Floods here, fires there. Violence here genocide there. It’s all a bit overwhelming.
Perhaps we shouldn’t look too carefully at what will be in the future. Yaacov wanted to look but was prevented. Perhaps we should just forgo that questionable pleasure, concentrating on the doing the best we can and take things as they come.
There’s no doubt we should be grateful for the good we have – as Yosef was for his ultimate salvation, and we should bear hope for the future – not blind but somewhat hesitant – based on the fact that we have made it this far.