I was told this story on my Bar Mitzvah day by my grandfather, Rabbi Lesser.
Place: Krakow, Poland
The elegant carriage stood in front of the humble dwelling, surrounded by a swarm of black-clad chassidim. Suddenly, a 6-year-old child stood in front of the carriage, boldly holding onto the horse’s reins and bawling his head off. “I want a blessing from the Rebbe! I want a blessing from the Rebbe!’ he screamed above the din of the chassidim.
The house belonged to Rabbi Beinish Sheinberger, an elderly chassid had who just received the honor of a visit from the Grand Rabbi of Shiniv, Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam, one of the great spiritual luminaries of Galitzia (southern Poland). The Rebbe had officiated at a Bris Milah in Krakow, and on his way home, had stopped off to visit the venerable Rabbi Sheinberger. The little boy was his grandson. His name was Dovid Nosson Lesser, and his father, renowned in Krakow as Reb Yokel Lesser, lived on the second floor of Rabbi Sheinbereger’s humble abode.
The youth refused to let go of the reins until he caught the Rebbe’s attention. The boy’s father was looking very embarrassed, until the Rebbe motioned him to bring his son into his carriage. Rabbi Halberstam did not dispense blessings freely; his custom was only to bless a groom before his marriage. When Reb Yokel carried his jubilant son to the Rebbe and said, “My Dovid wants a blessing,” the Rebbe was so impressed with the boy’s sincerity that he took him on his lap and blessed him that he should have pious children who would follow in his ways.
That little boy, Reb Dovid Noson, was forced to leave Europe after World War One and ended up on the shores of the United States. He lived in the midst of materialism, assimilation and intermarriage for 50 years, and with the help of the Almighty, the Rebbe’s blessing was fulfilled, and he succeeded in bringing up generations of Torah loyal Jews.
Parshat Vayechi is about blessings and their fulfillment. This begs the question: What is a blessing? Can it change the normal functions of the world? In the Parsha we will examine the blessings that Jacob gave his children and grandchildren.
LIFE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
The Parsha begins with the life of Jacob. “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.” These were the best years of his life, when he finally did not have to fear or mourn anyone. “And these are the days of Jacob, the years of his life 147 years.” (Genesis 47:28)
Who counts years in days?! (“I am 20 times 365 days old!”) In Parshat Chayei Sarah, we commented how Abraham’s death is described as he died “satiated with days,” meaning that every day was an accomplishment (Genesis 25:8).
In Parshat Vayigash, Pharaoh asked Jacob, “How many days are the years of your life?” also referring to years in days (Genesis 47:8). Jacob replied, in his humility, that the days of my sojourning in this world (i.e. physical existence) have been 130 years, but few and bad were the “years of my life” (i.e. periods of accomplishment), which did not approach that of my ancestors.
Jacob was saying that Abraham and Isaac fully lived and accomplished, while he, Jacob, was mostly just physically existing. This was the humility of Jacob. But here the Torah reveals the truth, that Jacob also lived a life of accomplishment for his 147 years and never just “killed another day!”
JACOB SUMMONS JOSEPH
Jacob had a request, and “when the fox is in charge you bow to him.” He wanted Joseph to swear that he would bury him in Israel.
The commentators offer a number of reasons why Jacob didn’t want to be buried in Egypt. First, Jacob was concerned that the Egyptians might worship him as a deity.
Second, Jacob was aware that the plague of lice would come to Egypt, and all who were buried there would turn into lice! (Rashi)
However, Jacob’s primary motivation was to teach his children that Egypt was not their real home, and they still had to maintain their loyalty to the Land of Israel where their holy ancestors had been buried. (Rav Hirsch)
This was also the reason that he made Joseph take an oath. Not that he didn’t trust his favorite son! But Jacob knew that the Egyptians would consider burial in Israel to be a disloyal act and a sign that the Jews had not assimilated into Egyptian culture. Pharaoh would oppose this, and only because of the oath would Joseph be able to obtain permission from Pharaoh.
Question: Years earlier, why did Jacob bury Rachel (Joseph’s mother) on the road, without even taking her to the nearby city – yet Jacob is now requesting that Joseph take him all the way to Israel!
Answer: Jacob had been specifically instructed to bury Rachel this way, so that hundreds of years later, the Jews going into the Babylonian exile would pass by her tomb. The prophet Jeremiah saw Rachel arise from her tomb and cry for her children, until the Almighty promised her that they will return to their borders. (Rashi)
“Joseph took the oath, and Jacob bowed down at the bed” (Genesis 47:31). Here was the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream of the sun bowing down. (In his dream, the “moon” referred to Bilhah who raised Joseph, although the Torah does not state specifically where Bilhah bowed to Joseph.)
BLESSING FOR ALL GENERATIONS
Some time later, Joseph was informed (by his son Ephraim, who studied regularly with Jacob) that his father was ill. Joseph brought his two sons for a blessing and placed them before Jacob.
Jacob apparently did not recognize them at first. “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) he demanded. The Sages explain that Jacob saw the wicked men Yeravam, Ahab, and Yehu descending from these sons. “Where did they come from? I tried so hard to make sure my children all followed the right path. How could such evil have come from them?” questioned Jacob as the Divine Spirit left him. (heard from Rabbi A.Y. Wertheimer)
Joseph then showed Jacob his marriage contract, and prayed that God’s presence should return. Jacob hugged and kissed his grandsons, and commenced the blessing.
Joseph positioned his sons with the firstborn Menashe to Jacob’s right and Ephraim on his left. When giving the blessing, Jacob crossed his hands to put his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son. Joseph was upset and tried to switch back his father’s hands.
Hadn’t Jacob learned his lesson from the favoritism he had showed Joseph himself? The entire book of Genesis is a chronicle of the jealousy of older brothers toward younger ones, from Cain and Abel, to Isaac and Yishmael, to Jacob and Esav, and finally Joseph and his brothers. Yet Jacob stood his ground. Yes, the older son would be great (the Sages say he had an illustrious descendent named Gideon [see the book of Judges] who won a battle for the Jewish people), however, the younger brother was destined to have an even greater descendent, Joshua, who would astound the world by stopping the movement of the sun so he could end a battle in daylight.
Question: Why not give Menashe the greater blessing with the right hand, and have Joshua be his descendent?! Isn’t that what Joseph desired?
Answer: A blessing cannot create potential. It can only help existing potential materialize. Ephraim had the potential to produce a Joshua, but Menashe only had the potential for a Gideon. Jacob realized that he could not increase the potential of Menashe, so the greater blessing had to go to Ephraim. (Rav Shlomo Wolbe)
BY YOU SHALL ISRAEL BLESS
Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons that they should increase in number like fish (who are immune from the evil eye because they live under water) in the midst of the land.
Jacob then added, “By you shall Israel bless, saying, may the Almighty make you as Ephraim and Menashe!” This means that for all generations, including the present, when Jewish parents bless their children, they wish the daughters to be like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Sons, however, do not receive a blessing to be like the patriarchs, but rather like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph.
Question: What is so special about these sons that Jacob instituted this custom?
Answer: The greatness of Joseph was that he not only stayed a God-fearing Jew in the hostile spiritual environment of Egypt, but he even brought up children in Egypt who were worthy of becoming tribes of Israel! Jacob wanted this message relayed to all generations: that no matter where one finds himself, it is possible to live as a Jew if one desires to.
A certain reserve Air Force Chaplain that I know, would take his little children with him when he went on active duty. Alone in an army barracks, hundreds of miles from the closest Jewish community, they would make Shabbat with Kiddush and challah and all the traditional foods. Singing the “Zemirot” (Shabbat table songs), and speaking about the weekly Torah portion, they were able to transport themselves to a spiritual reality far away.
A Jew can live as a Jew no matter where, if there is a sincere desire to do so.
THE CITY OF SHECHEM
Jacob informed Joseph that his two sons would each have tribal status and inherit a portion in the Land of Israel (this was the double-portion of the firstborn). In addition, Jacob gave Joseph the city of Shechem (today called Nablus, where Joseph was later buried, and whose tomb remains a point of conflict with our neighbors until today). Jacob had captured Shechem from the Emorites with his sword and bow (Genesis 48:22).
Question: Jacob didn’t conquer the city of Shechem – Shimon and Levi did – so why did Jacob give it to Joseph?
Answer: The Aramaic translator Onkelos explains that “sword and bow” really refers to spiritual terms, “my prayer and supplications.” Jacob, with his merit of Torah and prayer, caused the neighboring nations to avoid fighting with the Jews.
Question: Where is this explanation hinted in the text?
Answer: Why is the sword mentioned before the bow, when they are usually made use of in the reverse order? Warriors would first shoot arrows at the enemies at a distance, and only later take out their swords for hand-to-hand combat. This shows that we are dealing with spiritual battles that start off at close range (the parable of the sword). Then as the “evil” is pushed away from our immediate scene, we, so to speak, continue the treatment with our Torah and prayers, and shoot the arrows. (“And stay there!”)
BLESSING THE TRIBES
Jacob gathered his 12 sons on his deathbed (the best time to let them hear the cold hard truth!) and declared that he would reveal exactly what will occur in the end of days. Suddenly, he started to bless them.
The Sages explain that the reason Jacob didn’t continue to prophesize was because the Shechina (Divine Presence) left him, obviously in order to keep the future secret.
Jacob was upset and thought that maybe one of his sons did not totally believe in God (again, after all his efforts to have his children follow in his ways). The sons proclaimed unanimously: “Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel (our father), we all believe that the Lord is one!”
When Jacob heard this, he was so elated that he proclaimed, “May the honor of His kingdom be blessed forever.” (We add these words to our daily Shema, though silently, because Moses did not write them in the Torah.)
THE FUTURE LEADER
In blessing his children, Jacob was appointing the future leader of the Jewish people:
(1) Reuven: “My first born, the first of my seed.” Reuven had many positive attributes and should have become the priest and king, with all the rights of the firstborn. However, “He is hasty like the rush of water, he laid on his father’s bed and desecrated it.” (Genesis 49:4 – see Parshat Vayishlach)
This means that Reuven was disqualified for leadership, as a result of making hasty decisions. Had he thought out his actions, he would never have interfered in his father’s social affairs. Someone who makes hasty decisions (compared to the fast flow of water) cannot be a responsible leader.
Question: What kind of “blessing” is this?!
Answer: Although not your typical blessing, Jacob revealed to each of his sons their negative and positive traits, which would enable them to better deal with life. That is a great blessing.
(2, 3) Shimon and Levi: “Shimon and Levi are brothers,” meaning they value brotherhood. They stood up for their sister Dinah, and against the imagined threat of Joseph. This, in and of itself, was very positive.
However, again Jacob revealed a negative trait, which prevented them from leadership positions. “Stolen weapons are their arsenal” (Genesis 49:5), meaning that they stole the sword of brother Esav. “They killed out of anger (the city of Shechem) and wanted to finish off Joseph.”
After all these years, Jacob had still not forgotten their over-zealousness in wiping out the entire (not-so-innocent) population of Shechem (see Parshat Vayishlach).
“Cursed is their anger!” (Many years later, the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam, who tried unsuccessfully to curse the Jewish people, would complain that even when they deserved to be cursed, only their anger was cursed and not them personally). Jacob was saying that Shimon and Levi had a hot temper which motivated their decisions, hence disqualifying them from leadership positions.
“I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:7). The antidote to Shimon and Levi’s problem was to be separated from each other, so they couldn’t do damage together. The tribe of Levi received no portion in the land, and was scattered in cities throughout Israel. They had to live off the people’s tithes, and therefore had to constantly be on their best behavior, or else they’d starve!
The tribe of Shimon were the school teachers (also wandering around the land), who had to learn patience in order to deal with their students.
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out that the name-change from Jacob to Israel denotes two periods in Jewish history. When we are on the higher level of “Israel,” meaning that we are sovereign in our land, then we should scatter the Shimons and Levis and not make them heads of state, as their wrath might lead to war. However, when we are “Jacob” in exile and trampled upon, it is sometimes good to have a few Shimons and Levis among us, to remind us of Jewish pride and to help keep anti-Semitism in check.
(4) Judah: The Sages say that at this point, after hearing his brothers’ “blessings,” Judah started to tiptoe toward the door, anticipating a “blessing” for his conduct with Tamar. Then Jacob called to him, “Judah! Judah! You are not like them. You are the one with leadership qualities. You admitted to being the father of Tamar’s children, despite the considerable embarrassment it caused you. This demonstrated an inner sense of morality. Your brothers will admit to being subordinate to you as their king. Your hand will be at the neck of your enemies, and your father’s sons will bow to you.” (Genesis 49:8)
Judah is likened to a lion, which acts royally, not scrounging like dogs or tigers. However, don’t start up with him! Now Jacob had established his leader:
“The scepter shall not leave Judah and lawmakers from his descendents, until Shiloh (the Messiah) arrives” (Genesis 49:10). This prophesy came to fruition with the reign of King David, and included the Jewish “Heads of Exile” in Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple, as well as the princes in the Land of Israel who were all descendents of the Davidic Dynasty.
In the confrontation between Joseph and Judah in Parshat Vayigash, we see a historical counterpart when Yeravam Ben Navat of the tribe of Ephraim rebelled after the death of King Solomon. Yeravam founded the Kingdom of Israel, which actually fought with the Kingdom of Judah, headed by Rachavom the son of Solomon, until the 10 tribes were conquered by Sancheriv the king of Assyria and lost until today.
We see another exception to the rule of Judah during the period of the Second Temple, when the Hasmoneans (The Maccabees who were Cohanim of the tribe of Levi) became kings after their victory over Greece. According to Nachmanides, because they disobeyed Jacob’s instructions that Judah should be king, their end was bitter and the entire family was assassinated by Herod the Great (originally their servant!).
(5) Zevulun became a tribe of merchant marines who traded as far as Tyre, and taught the world about Jewish integrity and honesty. Zevulun entered into a partnership with his scholarly brother Yissachar, whereby Zevulun would financially support Yissachar who could then spend his time studying Torah – and they would divide the “spiritual profits” between them.
(6) Yissachar is compared to a donkey pulling his load, illustrating how persistent he was in Torah scholarship. He saw that “rest” was pleasant, meaning that he received a fertile land to easily support himself (especially with the help of Zevulun), He spread his shoulders to carry the “yoke” of Torah. The biblical book of Chronicles states that 200 heads of the Sanhedrin were born of the tribe of Yissachar.
(7) Dan: “Dan will judge his people as the other tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:16). Dan is compared to “the snake that bites the heel of the horse, who then bucks its rider.”
All of Jewish history seems to be alluded to in this Parsha. Right in the middle of these blessings, the Sages see a reference to Samson the Judge (of the tribe of Dan) who destroyed the Philistines with his mighty strength. (Judges 13-17)
Jacob exclaimed: “For Your salvation, God do I hope!” (Genesis 49:18) The Sages explain this as referring to the end of Samson, who revealed his secret to his Philistine wife, who promptly informed the authorities. After they cut Samson’s hair, he lost his strength, so they blinded him and chained him to the pillars of their temple. Samson prayed to receive his strength back just one more time. He then pulled down the pillars of the temple and the whole thing collapsed over him. In anticipation of Samson’s ordeal, Jacob prayed for him.
(8) Gad: Jacob blessed Gad with military strength to overcome all the legions of soldiers that would come against him. This was appropriate for Gad because he lived on the East Bank of the Jordan River and was frequently under attack. Also, Gad went in the vanguard before the other tribes in the battle for the Land of Israel. We later learn that the men of Gad returned after 14 years with no casualties.
(9) Asher: Jacob blessed Asher with a fertile land which produced the delicacies of the kings.
(10) Naftali: Energetic like a deer and able to run swiftly, Naftali had a fertile land whose fruits also ripened quickly, prompting words of praise to the Almighty.
(11) Joseph: Joseph’s blessing was that he would be “above the eye,” meaning that the “evil eye” would have no power over his descendents. This was his reward for protecting his mother from the eye of Esav (see Parshat Vayishlach). The women of Egypt climbed over the walls to get a look at him when he became Prime Minister (see Parshat Miketz).
“They embittered his life and he was hated,” but with the help of God, both the material and spiritual blessings of Jacob and his predecessors will come upon the head of Joseph, the “crown of his brothers.”
(12) Benjamin is compared to a wolf that tears apart his prey in the morning, and divides the booty in the evening.
Rabbi Hirsch understands this verse that Benjamin will tear apart the “wolf,” meaning Amalek, the archenemy of the Jews. “In the morning,” refers to the dawn of the monarchy. The first Jewish king, Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, wiped out Amalek, but didn’t complete the job, letting the king Agog live for one night, enabling him to produce progeny.
“In the evening,” refers to Mordechai and Esther, the descendents of Saul, who would finish off Haman, the grandson of Agog, and then proceed to divide his wealth.
THE DEATH OF JACOB
Jacob then blessed all his sons by including all of them in the specific blessings he had rewarded each individual. After instructing them to bury him in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, Jacob expired.
The Sages point out that the word “death” is not used here. Jacob did not experience the “taste of death”; he simply departed from the physical world.
Joseph fell on his father, weeping, and ordered his servants to embalm Jacob. (Although Jewish tradition is to allow the body to decompose as soon as possible, Joseph acted out of consideration for the Egyptians who would have seen it as highly disrespectful not to embalm his father.) The embalming process took 40 days, after which all of Egypt mourned for 30 days.
ARE OATHS SACRED?
Joseph requested Pharaoh’s permission to bury his father in Israel. Joseph stressed that his father made him take an oath. “Are oaths sacred to you Pharaoh, or not?” Joseph asked, hinting to the oath that Joseph had taken years earlier, promising not to divulge that he knew one more language than Pharaoh (see Parshat Miketz).
Pharaoh immediately responded affirmatively: “Go bury your father as he made you swear!” (Genesis 50:6)
THE FUNERAL PROCESSION
Joseph and his brothers led the procession, leaving their families in Egypt (Pharaoh’s condition to guarantee their return), with a troop of Egyptian horsemen and chariots accompanying them. Jacob had given instructions to the pallbearers, specifying in which direction each son should stand. (This same arrangement was followed years later when the Jews encamped and traveled in the wilderness.)
Joseph (being a king) and Levi (whose tribe would bear the Holy Ark) were not to carry the hearse. Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, took their places. When the procession entered Canaanite territory, the inhabitants greeted them with weapons, believing it to be an invasion. Only when they saw Joseph’s crown on the coffin did they realize it was a funeral. In Jacob’s honor, the Canaanite kings added their own crowns and named the place “Egypt’s mourning” (Genesis 50:11). They eulogized Jacob in that place.
UNCLE ESAV APPEARS
The Midrash tells us that when the funeral procession arrived in Hebron, a surprise was in store for them. Uncle Esav had preempted them, claiming that the last remaining grave was rightfully his.
The brothers argued, “Our father bought you out for a giant pile of silver and gold!”
“Where is the document?” Esav demanded.
“We left it in Egypt,” they replied.
“Go get it!” Esav responded.
As the swift Naftali prepared to run in a flash back to Egypt, the situation was saved by Jacob’s grandson Chushim, the son of Dan. He was big and strong, but a little deaf. When he comprehended that Esav was holding up Zayde’s funeral, Chushim became enraged, walked up to Uncle Esav, and literally “knocked his head off.” (this was a fulfillment of Rebecca’s prophecy that “I will lose you both on one day” (Genesis 27:45)
According to tradition, Esav’s head rolled into the cave. The understanding is that Esav’s head (his intellectual capacity) was equal to that of the patriarchs, but his bodily desires got the best of him.
A MIRACLE IN THIS PLACE
On their way back to Egypt, the brothers passed the spot where they had sold their brother. Joseph went over to the pit that he had been thrown into (still containing snakes and scorpions, see Parshat Vayeshev) and recited the appropriate blessing for this occasion: “Blessed is the One Who performed a miracle for me in this place.” (Midrash)
When the brothers observed this, they were very shaken up. They inferred that Joseph had not forgotten their deed and would take his revenge. This feeling was reinforced when they returned home. They noticed a change in Joseph. From that time on, he did not invite them to his Shabbat table.
The commentators explain that Joseph did not feel right sitting at the head of the table above his older brothers, but being the prime minister of Egypt, he could not sit elsewhere. While Jacob was alive, the problem was alleviated by Jacob sitting at the head and requesting that Joseph sit next to him. Now, in order to avoid the problem, Joseph simply refrained from inviting them.
The brothers misconstrued this gesture and sent a message saying that Jacob had commanded before his death that Joseph must forgive his brothers. “Forgive the transgressions of the servants of the Lord of your father” (Genesis 50:17) – i.e. even if your father is gone, his Lord is still here! The brothers then fell at Joseph’s feet and offered to be his servants.
Joseph replied with compassion. “How can the thought of revenge even enter my mind? Am I instead of God? You intended to harm me, and it turned out differently, for the good (a blessing in disguise!), as I am now the ruler of Egypt. To ‘pay back’ such an act, I must do something to you that will also turn out good in the end. But that is a feat that only God can accomplish.” Joseph then comforted his brothers and promised to support them and their families.
THE DEATH OF JOSEPH
Joseph lived until age 110 and brought up three generations (the continuation of the tradition). He died before all his brothers, and made them swear that when they leave Egypt they will take his bones with them, to be buried in Israel. (He knew that Pharaoh would never allow another funeral like Jacob’s to occur.)
Joseph’s last words contained the famous formula he had heard from Jacob: “God will truly redeem you and bring you to the land of the fathers” (Genesis 50:24). These were also the words that Moses would use 132 years later.
Joseph died and was embalmed. The Egyptians put his body in a lead coffin and sunk it to the bottom of the Nile so no one could retrieve it.
Thus ends the book of Genesis, with the planting of the seed of the Jewish people. We now take leave of our patriarchs and matriarchs, feeling like a child on his first day of school waving goodbye to his father and mother with apprehension in his heart. In the book of Exodus, the seed they planted will grow into a great nation…