By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
In last week’s Torah parsha, Vayigash, Joseph became overwhelmed with emotion when he learned that his father, Jacob, was still alive. He revealed his identity to his eleven brothers and urged them to bring his father and all of their wives and children to Egypt. The brothers were both stunned and elated. They gleefully returned to Canaan and relayed the entire story to Jacob. He wept in ecstasy as he tried to assimilate that not only was his beloved son alive, but also that Joseph had risen to a position of royalty within the Pharaoh’s home.
The entire family returned to Egypt and settled in the land of Goshen, where they prospered and multiplied.
This week’s parsha, Vayechi, is the last in the book of Genesis. It begins after the family had been living in Egypt for close to twenty years. When Jacob is on his deathbed, the drama of sibling rivalry which has haunted the Book of Genesis, reaches a strange climax in the story of Joseph’s two sons. As Jacob is dying, he asks to see Joseph’s children, Manasseh and the younger son, Ephraim, in order that he can bless them. What follows next is described in painstaking detail:
“Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand, and Manasseh in his left; but Jacob reached out his right hand, putting it on Ephraim’s head, knowing that he was the younger; but still received a more holy blessing” (1). Jacob explained that the name ‘Manasseh’ represents the time of old, whereas ‘Ephraim’ refers to the future. The younger son received the more sacred blessing because he was a child of the ‘new world’ (2).
Jacob then called all of his sons and said: “Gather around and I will tell you what will happen to you” (3). He began with his oldest son, Reuben, born to Leah. “You shall not have the superiority, you are impetuous for you stole your father’s couch” (4). Certainly, this is a bizarre statement for a father to make to his son. According to Rashi, after Jacob’s beloved wife (Rachel) died, Jacob moved his bed into the tent of his first wife (Leah). Reuben saw his father move his bed from his tent to the tent of Bilah, a handmaiden. Considering it intolerable, that his father should prefer a handmaiden to his mother, he impulsively returned Jacob’s bed to be in the tent of Leah (5).
Reuben repented for his sin; however, according to Rambam, in addition to repentance for one’s destructive actions, the individual also has to change those character traits (‘middos’), which were motivation for the actions (6). Unfortunately, Reuben continued to be somewhat impetuous during his life. Simeon and Levi were rebuked for their massacre of the Shechmites, after the King’s son raped their sister, Dina (7). Ironically, after the Exodus, the ‘Levites’ became ‘kohanim’ (priests); but as prophesized by Jacob, the descendants of Simeon were scattered across the earth.
Judah, the fourth son of Leah, was ordained as the leader; a man of courage, judgment and humility. He was to become the ancestor of King David and many princes.
The other brothers, including Joseph, were expected to enhance the skills and strengths which they had already proven during their respective lives.
Joseph lived long enough to see his grandchildren be born, then he too died.
(1) GENESIS (48: 13-14, 17-20)
(2) Rav Yaakov Kamentsky (1891-1986), “Truth To Jacob” (NY,NY)
(3) GENESIS (49:1)
(4) GENESIS (49:4)
(5) Rashi on verse (Talmud Shabbat 55b)
(6) Rambam, “Laws of Repentance”