Parshat Vayechi 2017
Today as we finish reading Bereshit, Yaacov and Yosef and the gantze mishpoche are living the good life in Egypt. We blink and next week, in Shmot, we find the Israelites being enslaved. How did this happen? Two hundred years is a long time but still, such an extreme transition? Is it possible to find intimations in this week’s parsha that foreshadow the tectonic change that occurred?
According to Dr. Brachi Elizur, the signs are there, although other commentators disagree and give a different slant to some of them. Let’s have a look.
We know how Yosef got to Egypt, and we know that he radiated God-given success both in the home of Potiphar and in the jail to which Potiphar sent him. The Egyptians were very superstitious, and when someone “proved” that the gods were with him, he was accorded special status.
This becomes abundantly clear when Yosef interprets the dreams of Pharaoh. “Is there such a man in whom the spirit of God resides?” asks Pharaoh rhetorically after Yosef suggests appointing a man to control the food in the country. Yosef, a young man, a slave, a foreigner – is appointed viceroy of Egypt. Unheard of! But he had close ties with his God.
The Yaacov family arrive in Egypt in the second year of seven years of famine. They are living in Goshen. Yosef is supporting them, providing “bread [food] for each mouth.” And the very next sentence says, “And there was no bread [food] in all the country” because of the famine.
It’s like Yaacov and family were ensconced in luxury in Caesaria and the rest of the people starved in what used to be the slums of Or Akiva. Yet this was OK. We don’t hear of envy because Yosef had “earned” the right to his luxury through his connections. We can see that money and government have always gone together.
Until this point it is obvious to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians that Yosef has thrown in his lot with the goldene medina, his newly adopted land. He is a part of it and is treated like royalty. The arrival of Yaacov and the rest of Yosef’s family merely strengthens this feeling. They are all given honor.
One little fly could have contaminated the ointment when Yosef brings a representative sample of his brothers to Pharaoh. They say, we are here just as temporary residents because there’s no grazing land for our flocks in Canaan. But Pharaoh probably ascribes this to their being newcomers. They are here to stay, he thinks.
And then comes our parsha with an unusual request. Yaacov asks to be buried in Canaan. It’s not only a request – he makes Yosef swear that he will ensure his burial back “home.”
How do we know that this is a big request? Because Yosef, the viceroy, Pharaoh’s golden-haired boy, is afraid to ask Pharaoh directly. Some commentators say that he was in mourning, unshaven, wearing dirty clothes and so was not decent enough to appear before the king. Maybe. But it is just as likely that Yosef understood how explosive this request could be. You live here but you won’t be buried here? You don’t consider this your permanent home? That’s the feeling such a request engenders.
Of course Yosef had no choice. Yaacov had made him promise. And Yaacov knew the burden of saying “I want to rest with my ancestors.” He also knew that making Yosef swear was a strong enough argument to bring to Pharaoh, because a deathbed oath trumps all opposition.
So Pharaoh had no choice but to accede to Yosef’s request. And it seems to be no problem. All the advisers and elders of Egypt joined the funeral procession to Canaan after 70 days of mourning, a sign of great respect.
At the same time Pharaoh sent a regiment of chariots and soldiers. This too could be construed as a sign of respect. Or it could be read as an indication that the tribes in Canaan were in no mood to see Egyptians traipsing into their land and burying people there (what, you don’t have enough cemeteries in Egypt?), and the troops were needed to protect all the high level members of the funeral cortege, including Yosef.
Or, as Dr. Elizur suggests, it was a sign that Pharaoh wanted to make sure that his viceroy returned to Egypt. These soldiers were like the 400 men that Esau wanted to attach to Yaacov when he returned home after 21 years with Laban.
Moreover, the parsha says specifically that the Israelites’ children and sheep and cattle remained in Egypt. This sounds suspiciously like the offer Pharaoh will make to Moshe later – go worship your God, just leave behind the children and the flocks.
Yosef returns immediately to Egypt but perhaps the seeds of discontent have been planted. These people, say Pharaoh and the Egyptians, do not see Egypt as their home but only as a country to plunder until they can return to what they consider home. And within generations, these seeds of discontent blossom into full-blown antagonism.
Other elements probably contributed to the change of heart as well, including jealousy and xenophobia (just because your family has lived here for 200 years doesn’t make you a native!). And as Prof. Yosef Klein points out, we should not forget that most alliances in politics last only as long as they serve the parties involved. And 200 years IS a long time. Nevertheless, it can be argued that future developments were already portended in the early parts of the story.
To a great extent, this has been our story in almost all lands. Even here some call us outsiders. Except that here we ARE home, because of Yaacov, Yosef and those who preceded them.