"and he lived"
Our study this Shabbat is Par’sha V’yechi, which means and he lived. It covers the final chapters of B’reshith, spanning B’reshith 47.28 through 50.26. The story begins with the last seventeen years of Yisra’el’s life. For a family that had known its share of troubles and disappointments, B’reshith closes on a peaceful note. Ya’akov had been reunited with Yoseph, Yoseph had forgiven his brothers and the family had settled in the land of Goshen. They endured the last five years of the great famine together and then enjoyed another twelve years of peace as the land recovered and returned to normal.
Yisrael realized his time to die was drawing near and sent for Yoseph. Since Yoseph’s authority in Mitsrayim was second only to Pharaoh himself, Yisra’el knew that his son had the authority to grant him this favor. He made Yoseph promise not to bury him in the land of Mitsrayim. His desire was to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah with his fathers.
In addition to a natural desire to be buried with his fathers, some Hebrew scholars acknowledge other reasons Yisrael may have had for wanting to be buried with his fathers in Hebron. Among them are:
His desire to show the people of Mitsrayim that the Hebrews did not consider themselves to be a part of Mitsrayim. Though in exile, their hearts remained attached to the land of their inheritance.
He also wanted his children and his children’s children to never forget that their true inheritance was Eretz Yisra’el, not Mitsrayim.
It may have also been that Yisrael recognized the dangers of assimilation when surrounded by people of different cultures, different beliefs and different gods.
So he summoned Yoseph and asked him to swear not to bury him in Mitsrayim.
As chapter forty-eight opens Yoseph receives word that his father is sick. Sick is translated from חֹלֶה - choleh - that means being weak and ill. It is the first time this word is used in Torah, which, as you might suspect, has given way to some traditional beliefs. One is that from the time of Creation, a man had never been afflicted with illness before he died. When his life was over, he simply sneezed as life left him and he died.
Realizing this, Ya’akov asked Elohim to give him time to bless his children and to perform t’shuvah before he died, so Elohim caused this sickness a few days before he died to let him know his time was near. Whether this was the case or not will have to remain firmly rooted in tradition until Mashiach returns, it does explain the tradition of wishing someone good heath, or Yah’s blessings, when they hear someone sneeze so that their sneeze will not have mortal consequences.1
Chapter forty-eight also establishes the basis for the blessings we pray over our sons every Shabbat. When Yoseph heard that his father was sick, he went to see him and brought his two sons along as well. We can only imagine the impact their names had on Ya’akov (as he is now referred to). After Yoseph pointed out that his father had reversed his hands and was now blessing the younger brother over the older one, Yisrael (as he is now referred to) explained. “I know, my son, I know.. He (Menashsheh) also becomes a people, and he also is great. And yet, his younger brother is greater than he and his seed shall become the completeness of the nations.” And he blessed them on that day, saying, “In you Yisrael shall bless, saying, ‘Elohim make you as Ephrayim and Menashsheh!’ “Thus he put Ephrayim before Menashsheh.48.19-20
There is an important lesson behind blessing our sons, asking that they become like Ephrayim and Menashsheh. Yoseph’s sons had been born in a foreign land and whose mother had been raised by a culture that believed in many false gods and evil practices. Ya’akov’s other sons had been raised in a home that served Y’H’V’H Elohim and, for the most part, never left their father’s home or the faith of their fathers. (Okay, there was the time Yehudah left for awhile with resulted in the birth of the twins Perets and Zerach - see chapter thirty-eight.)
Despite being of mixed lineage (though some argue Asenath bat Poti-Pherah was actually Dinah’s daughter through Shekem) and being raised in a foreign land and exposed to all the temptations of Mitsrayim and given the power and prestige their father held in the land, Yoseph’s sons remained faithful to the faith of their father and their Hebrew roots. They willingly joined with their new Hebrew relatives - people whom most, if not all, of Mitsrayim saw as abominable shepherds.
And this is the prayer of every father that is expressed through blessing our sons and asking that Elohim make them as Ephrayim and Menashsheh. It is our prayer that our sons not assimilate into the nations, but will adopt the way of their Hebrew roots and remain faithful to Y’H’V’H Elohim, our Messiah and Torah. It is our prayer that our sons resist the temptations of this world and join themselves to the faith of our forefathers.
And so Yisrael adopted these two sons of Yoseph as his own, giving them an equal inheritance with his other sons. The children that would be born to Yoseph after Ephrayim and Menashsheh would be Yoseph’s and they would be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. As for Yoseph’s first two sons, Yisrael put Ephrayim before Menashsheh.48.20 Once again, this short verse presents an important lesson.
Ya’akov was not only familiar with their names, he understood the meaning behind their names. Menashsheh meant, For Elohim has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house while Ephrayim meant, For Elohim has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.41.51-52 Ya’akov realized a lesson that lay in the names Yoseph had chosen for his two sons.
Ya’akov knew that the exile he and his descendants had entered into would be a long one46.3 - spanning nearly four hundred years15.13-16. Realizing that Yoseph’s two sons were the first to be born in exile from the land.
Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with their ages and everything to do with their names. Knowing that these were the first two children of his family to be born in exile, knowing too that the exile would be prolonged and at times difficult and dark, Jacob sought to signal to all future generations that there would be a constant tension between the desire to forget (to assimilate, acculturate, anaesthetise the hope of a return) and the promptings of memory (the knowledge that this is “exile,” that we are part of another story, that ultimate home is somewhere else). The child of forgetting (Manasseh) may have blessings. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim) who remembers the past and future of which he is a part.
1 Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 52; Magen Avraham §230,7)