19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Parshat Vayechi 2018
A novel usually reaches a climax then slowly descends into the denouement in which the loose ends are tied up and the story is complete. That’s not the way things work in the story of Yosef. True, the tremendous tension surrounding the meeting between Yosef and his brothers has receded. Yaacov and family are ensconced in Goshen by the Nile, Yosef’s brothers are probably overseers of Pharaoh’s flocks. But serious interfamily tensions remain. Why?
For one thing, the brothers still don’t believe that Yosef has really forgiven them, despite his frequent protestations. They think that Yaacov’s death will release the real devil. Esau said: “My father’s day of death will come, then I will kill my brother Yaacov.” Honoring the father aced killing the brother. That was the morality of the time – so why should Yosef be different?
Yaacov was probably also unsettled, for different reasons. He was never told how Yosef got to Egypt and adhering to the dictum – if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question – he didn’t. He knows he’s going to die in Egypt, but he wants to be buried in Canaan, the land of his fathers, the land that will belong to his later generations. And he fears for the future.
He has met separately with Yosef and given Yosef’s two sons equal footing with his own children (effectively giving Yosef a double portion of the inheritance). In other words, favoritism still reigns. He has blessed Yosef’s younger son above the older brother, keeping alive the tradition of Avraham and Yitzhak. He receives Yosef’s promise to bury him in Canaan, which puts his mind at rest about his final resting place, but he still has to take leave of his family. And here, something strange happens.
He calls them all together to bless them and tell them what will happen to them in the future – but he doesn’t. The rabbis say that as he began to look to the future he suddenly lost his visionary powers because the future, with slavery in Egypt was so bleak.
Instead he begins by referring to what happened in the past. In fact, the first three blessings are curses. Reuven is stripped of the primogeniture because of his attempts to sleep with Yaacov’s concubine. Shimon and Levi are berated because of their unbelievable cruelty in massacring a whole city.
With Yehuda Yaacov makes a decision for the future. Yehuda is the leader, the responsible adult among the brothers. The one who undertook to assure Benjamin’s safety and ultimately facilitated to the descent of Yaacov and family to Egypt.
And here we find the seeds of future dissent. “No tribe shall deviate from Yehuda,” is part of Yaacov’s blessing, yet what about Yosef? He’s also a potential leader, and the tribes of Menashe and Ephraim will form the backbone of Israel when it splits from Judea centuries later.
But this is not the end of the parsha. With the death of Yaacov, as noted, the brothers fear for their lives. They make up a story about Yaacov’s urging him, Yosef, to forgive his brothers for their actions – an obvious lie that again brings tears to Yosef’s eyes, this time because he realizes that they are still not a united family.
Rabbi Ari Kahn lays responsibility for this lack of unity squarely on Yosef. From the start, he says, from Yosef’s first words to them after revealing who he was, Yosef’s inherent conceit and vanity keeps intruding on his efforts for family unity. “I am Yosef your brother,” he proclaims. “Is MY father alive?” Not OUR father, MY father.
“Tell my father that God has made me a father to Pharaoh and master of all Egypt.” Dream has become nightmare. It takes the brothers back to their childhood, and I bet some of them thought, we should have finished him off back then.
But they are dependent on him now. He IS the master of the land, he controls the food, and indeed, he does allow them to live high and mighty. But they are always aware of his presence, of his power.
Except at the end. There is one thing Yosef cannot do by himself or through his servants – only through the good graces of his family. As he dies at the end of the parsha he begs them to promise to carry his bones for burial in Canaan, where he belongs. Over this he has no control. He needs them to promise him, as he promised his father. And they do.
It is here, as Yosef lies dying that the roles are reversed, the hierarchy of power that Yosef maintained throughout their stay in Egypt is shattered, and here it is possible that the brothers actually accept Yosef as their brother, with no reservations. Partially because he can’t hurt them now. Partially because they see into the depths of his soul.
It is as Bereshit ends with the conclusion of a long-simmering sibling rivalry, when peace has descended on the family of Yaacov, that we can enter the next phase, where a whole nation will have to come together.
We can hope that sometime in our future we will find ourselves living in peace with our fellow Jews. A seemingly impossible task today but who knows what the morrow may bring. A few responsible brothers, a few altruistic steps toward rapprochement and who knows, we may all sit together, brothers and sisters, united and strong. We are allowed to dream.