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We have gotten to the end of the book of Genesis, the book of Bereishit (Beginnings) — the beginnings of the world and of our people. This last parasha in Genesis is called Va-Yehi (And He Lived), commenting on the life of Ya’akov (Jacob) that we have been following for weeks. But just as the parasha Chayei Sarah (Sarah’s Lives) begins with the death of Sarah, so too here, Va-Yehi paints a picture of Ya’akov on his death-bed (even though we might have thought, from the title of And He Lived, that the parasha would be about his life, not his death).
There is also a curious puzzle in Va-Yehi that is captured by the very form in which the Hebrew letters are written in the scroll. The puzzle is why Ya’akov loses the prophecy he wanted to convey to his sons before he took his leave of this world. What happened to him that the prophecy just escaped from him so completely?
What exactly, is that form that echoes the mystery of the missing prophecy? Well, Ya’akov is “blocked,” somehow prevented from delivering a message of final redemption to his sons. And our parasha is also “blocked” or “closed off.” Very rarely in the Torah scroll we see something called a “closed parasha,” referring to the actual physical layout of the letters on the parchment scroll. They appear on the same line as the last words of the parasha of the preceding week, instead of the typical separation of at least 9 blank spaces, which would separate last week‘s reading from this week’s. The form echoes the content. Ya’akov is blocked and our parasha is written in a “blocked” format, as if to emphasize our patriarch’s lost prophetic vision at the end of his life.
In fact, in Genesis chapter 48, when we get to verse 8, Ya’akov seems befuddled and lost. OK, he’s about to die, but he had just given a whole speech reminiscing about his life, and mentioning his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh. And now, a moment later, he is asking, “who are these boys?” What’s going on here? Is he losing it or not? And then he does something very curious: he wants to bless the boys that he has just formally adopted (chapter 48 verse 5) but he switches his hands so that the younger son, Ephraim, gets Ya’akov’s right hand, and the older son, Manasseh, receives his blessing from Ya’akov’s left hand. Do you think this is a subtle reminder of how he “stole” the blessing from his own twin brother Esav (Esau) so many years before?
In the present, Yosef (Joseph) tries to correct his dying father’s apparent mistake, but old Ya’akov is still sharp (so he isn’t losing it) and tells the assembled family that he wants to bestow the blessing just the way he indicated. Read what Ya’akov says in verses 19 and 20.
To this day, parents give this exact blessing to their sons on Friday night, as part of the ritual welcoming Shabbat. Why do you suppose we ask God to make our sons like Ephraim and Manasseh instead of any of the other brothers or even the patriarchs? (By the way, girls are blessed to be like the matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.) One possible hint may have to do with the lack of sibling rivalry associated with these two sons of Yosef; whereas, at least in the generation of Ya’akov and Yitzhak, there were terrible and sometimes violent sibling struggles.
In Chapter 49, Ya’akov says his last words, called blessings, to each of his sons, spoken in poetic form. Each little poem recalls things that happened earlier in their lives. We call these snippets of poetry “blessings,” but they often don’t sound like what we think of as blessings; they are more like “this is what you did so now you will get what you deserve.” In verse 29, Yakov gives his final instructions; and in verse 33, the long life of Ya’akov ends. As you can read in Chapter 50, he is given quite a funeral, paralleling how we bury great leaders in our day and age. Senior members of the Pharaoh’s court joined the family to mourn Ya’akov, and the mourning period lasted 7 days, just like “shiva” today.
Not only does Ya’akov die in this “closed” parasha called “And He Lived/Va-Yehi,” but Yosef also dies, at the age of 110. It is as if the author of this story wanted us to know that we are leaving the patriarchal and matriarchal tales and moving onwards. And where are we moving to? Look at the very last word in the book of Genesis to find out.
So we conclude Genesis at the same time as we conclude the year 2012. I have learned to read each parasha with an eye towards what is actually happening right now in our world, not limiting myself to thinking that the parasha is about some history that happened thousands of years ago. At the end of each book of the Torah we say, “Chazak, Chazak, V’Nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, let us be strong). As we say those words this Shabbat, I think we are encouraging each other to be strong in the face of the many challenges we face as we repair our communities from both deadly storms and massacres and have the strength to find ways to sustain and celebrate life.
Last week, we left our hero, Yosef/Joseph, in a heated conversational exchange with one of his brothers, Yehuda/Judah, who speaks on behalf of all of the brothers and pleads with Yosef not to keep the youngest brother, Binyamin/Benjamin, as a slave. We were literally stopped in our tracks in the middle of the conversation!
Now we take up the story in the middle of that conversation, with Yehuda’s heartfelt and poignant speech to save his youngest brother. Va-yigash (and he [Yehuda] approached) is the name of this parasha; in it we hear the longest and most sophisticated speech in all of the book of Genesis.
This long discourse takes 17 verses. Yehuda recounts much of the recent history of what has transpired with the brothers, adding that their elderly father, Yakov, would surely die from grief if this son, Binyamin, is enslaved in Egypt. The atmosphere couldn’t be more tension-filled. Everyone seems to be holding his breath to see what will happen next. Yehuda goes on to offer himself in place of Binyamin. He says all of this to the grand Egyptian vizier, not knowing that it’s Yosef, his brother. He ends his plea by asking Yosef to please take him instead, “for how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father.” And then he is silent.
You could hear a pin drop — the room is absolutely still. Breaking the silence, Yosef yells out and demands that the court to be emptied; the only ones who are allowed to stay are these men from Canaan. When the room is emptied, Yosef breaks down in loud sobs, crying, as he makes his true identity known to the brothers who once threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery. He says, “I am Yosef…. Is my father still well?” His brothers are speechless and cannot believe that this guy, who looks and acts so Egyptian and has so much power, is actually their little brother, the dreamer and braggart, now completely grown up and chief advisor to the Pharaoh.
There is a tearful scene of reconciliation as Yosef tells them that he has forgiven them for their wrongdoing so many years before. He now believes that it was God’s will that he ended up in Egypt so he could devise a plan to save that country and his own clan from the severe famine that they are all experiencing. Wow!! He instructs them to return home and bring their father and the entire tribe of Israelites down to Egypt so he can take care of them properly. Everyone is hugging everyone else and crying, the text tells us. I think they were probably laughing as well, from relief, from joy, from a break in the tension.
News reaches the Pharaoh who bestows gifts to Yosef’s family, “the best of the land of Egypt.” All of Yakov’s sons get ready to return home, laden with wagons bearing several changes of clothing, silver, and provisions like bread, grain, and other food for the journey to Canaan. Yosef tells his brothers, “don’t be quarrelsome with each other on the way back.” Why do you think he gives this particular piece of advice? What mood do you think the brothers were in that would cause them to get into fights?
The caravan leaves Egypt and after days, they reach Canaan. There are several midrashim (rabbinic interpretations to fill in the story) about how the brothers will tell their father Yakov that his beloved son Yosef, to whom he gave the coat of many colors, is still alive. They don’t want him to be shocked and have a heart-attack (God forbid), so how will they handle the news? The rabbis of the Talmud come up with a great little story that acts as a gloss to Genesis 45: 26-27. They remember that Yosef warned them not to alarm their aged father. So the brothers summoned Serach, the daughter of Asher, and asked her to sit before Yakov and play for him on the lyre; in this gentle, soothing manner she could reveal to her old grandfather that his favorite son was still alive, down in Egypt. Serach played the lyre well and sang gently: “Yosef my uncle did not die, he lives and rules all the land of Egypt.”
Serach bat (daughter) of Asher acquires a rich life in the midrash/rabbinic stories. She is actually named in the Torah, in the genealogy of this parasha, Genesis 46:17. And because she is the only girl listed by name, the rabbis embellished this tiny mention with fabulous stories about her: how she lives for hundreds of years; how she identifies Moshe/Moses as the liberator; and how, when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt 400 years later, she alone knows exactly where Yosef’s bones are buried in the Nile River, and she shows Moshe so that Yosef’s bones can be carried out of Egypt, as per his instructions…. But wait, we are getting ahead of ourselves here. For more on Serach bat Asher, look at this resource from MyJewishLearning.
The rest of the parasha deals with the migration of the Children of Israel into Egypt and how they become a protected people among the Egyptians, how they are given the choicest geographical areas in Egypt by the Pharaoh, and how they prospered. We also get to read how Yosef manages the famine by establishing a system of serfdom among the population (not such a pretty solution, but the Egyptians were grateful nonetheless).
Next week, we will come to the end of the book of Genesis, the first of the 5 books of Moses. Stay tuned!
Last week, the parasha (Torah portion of the week) ended with a chronology, a long list of names of the descendants of Esav (Esau), the twin brother of Yakov (Jacob), with whom he struggled, even in the womb, before they were born. The brothers finally made peace with each other and the Torah honors Esav by spending lots of time detailing his family. This week, however, it is clear that we are moving on to the key protagonist descended from Yakov: Yosef (Joseph), the 11th and the favorite son, borne by Yakov’s favorite wife, Rahel (Rachel).
Our opening scene sets the stage for what is actually a novella, the first in the Torah, the story of Yosef and his adventures. Andrew Lloyd Weber famously wrote a hit musical about some of our story that you may want to check out:
But we really don’t need a Broadway hit to let us know that this story has everything that makes a good novel or novella work: intrigue, plot twists, character development, changes in identity, dreams, lies, sibling rivalry, and more than a little a hint of sex.
In fact, just reading the text we see why the great German Jewish novelist of the early 20th century, Thomas Mann, produced a masterpiece of literature, Joseph and His Brothers, based not only on this story, but also incorporating the rabbinic midrashim (stories) that embellish the torah text. A new translation by John E. Woods is described as “a major literary event. Thomas Mann regarded his monumental retelling of the biblical story of Joseph as his magnum opus. He conceived of the four parts — The Stories of Jacob, Young Joseph, Joseph in Egypt, and Joseph the Provider — as a unified narrative, a ‘mythological novel’ of Joseph’s fall into slavery and his rise to be lord over Egypt. Deploying lavish, persuasive detail, Mann conjures for us the world of patriarchs and pharaohs, the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, and the universal force of human love in all its beauty, desperation, absurdity, and pain. The result is a brilliant amalgam of humor, emotion, psychological insight, and epic grandeur.”
Embedded in the opening part of this novella, the biblical authors do something so crafty. They begin the story in Genesis chapter 37 and build it to a crescendo, leaving Yosef at the point of being sold to an Egyptian after a terrible ordeal, and poor old Yakov, back home, mourning for his favorite boy. We really want to know what happens next… kind of the way you feel when you watch an episode of Homeland and you are just dying to know what will happen to Carrie and Brody. However, chapter 38 is a total departure from the Yosef story; we detour to read a completely separate story about Yehuda (Judah), Yakov’s 4th son, borne by Leah. It is the tribe of Judah that gives the Children of Israel their eventual name, Yehudim (Jews), and it is from this tribe that both King David and Jesus are descended.
The entire detour story tells us that Judah (Yehuda) had 3 sons, and when his oldest, Er, came of age, Yehuda arranged a marriage between Er and Tamar. Unfortunately Er dies and Yehuda sees fit to have Tamar marry another son, Onan. The story devolves (you can read it in chapter 38 verses 8-11). After Onan dies, Tamar is left a widow, childless, and she hatches a plot to make sure she can remarry and have children. In her cleverness, she reminds us somewhat of Rivka/Rebecca, the great-grandmother of Tamar’s husbands. Neither of these women possesses any overt power in this patriarchal society.
In order that the right thing will be done, each woman resorts to subterfuge — each one uses a cover-up to get the right outcome. Two generations before, Rivka puts skins on the arms of the smooth twin (Yakov) to make him feel hairy, like his twin, Esav, when their blind old father touches him. Now Tamar dons a garment that makes her resemble a cultic prostitute; she waits at the crossroads to entice Yehuda into a one-night-stand that she hopes will make her pregnant. He doesn’t recognize her; she takes his seal, cord, and staff as a voucher (for a goat) that she can later redeem — he will send the goat to her with a friend (chapter 38 verses 17-20).
Later, the townspeople tell Yehuda that his daughter-in-law is pregnant; and since he knows that she hasn’t re-married, he tells everyone “Bring her out and let her be burned!” Tamar comes out, shows the seal, cord, and staff, and says “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” Yehuda recognizes his things and realizes that he should have given Tamar his youngest son to marry (but didn’t), and says “This woman is more righteous than I — I should have given her my youngest son.” This couple is not intimate again, but later in Genesis, we will see how Yehuda develops. It is one of the twin babies, Perez, born of this coupling, who is the progenitor of the Davidic line, the line of the Messiah.
Finally we get back to the Yosef story in Chapter 39 and 40, and our parasha ends with Yosef interpreting dreams that are “spot-on.” Doesn’t this sound like a great novel, movie, or TV series???