Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
Ironically, the only two Torah portions whose names contain the word “chayyim” – life – center on death. The first is Parshat Chayei Sarah, which details the burial of our matriarch, Sarah. The second is this week’s reading, Parshat Vayechi, which is largely about Jacob’s passing. Perhaps, this is merely symbolic, and we should avoid getting too caught up on the names of the portions. However, this tradition of naming the portions convey a profound hidden message in the names themselves.
The Torah tells us about the funerals of several characters, including Sarah, Aaron and Moses, but no other funeral is described as painstakingly as that of Jacob. The text dedicates no fewer than twelve verses to this event, beginning with an account of the last few moments of Jacob’s life: “And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he drew his legs [up] into the bed, expired and was gathered to his people” [Gen. 49:33].
Immediately thereafter, the Torah begins to describe the funeral proceedings, specifying the participants and details of the procession, which began in Egypt and ended in the Land of Israel: “The Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land, saw the mourning at the threshing floor of the thorn bushes, and they said, ‘This is an intense mourning for the Egyptians.’ Therefore, they named it Avel Mizraim (Egypt mourns), which is on the other side of the Jordan” [ibid., 50:10-11].
Why does the Torah dedicate so much ink to this description, especially in light of the concept that every word of the Torah is important, and that not even a single letter is extraneous? Perhaps we can find an answer by pondering another verse, one that piques our curiosity: “And chariots and horsemen also went up with him, and the camp was very numerous” [ibid., v. 9].
Jacob’s funeral procession includes the imperial army, and, far from fulfilling a ceremonial role, they are soldiers readied to war. The Torah does not provide any details about the reasons for the military campaign, or what it was all about, but it looms in the background.
Indeed, our tradition makes clear that Jacob’s funeral was not particularly peaceful. In his Torah commentary, Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, a 13th-century Spain and Israel) writes that that “the reason that the Torah specifies ‘and chariots and horsemen also went up with him’ is that [Joseph] knew of the ill-will of Esau and his sons.”
Joseph knew that Esau would try to ambush the funeral procession, since he saw himself worthier of being buried in his family’s ancestral tomb in the Cave of the Machpelah than his younger twin brother. Accordingly, we find an incident recounted in the 10th Century chronicle, Josippon (Yosifun), as well as accounts from the Middle Ages, about Zepho, the grandson of Esau, who quarrelled with them, prompting them to go to war against him.
Ultimately, we are told that Joseph gained the upper hand, capturing Zepho along with several elite units of his army. They brought them to Egypt, where they remained in captivity until Joseph’s death. Thus, it turns out that while the funeral was underway, a pitched battle was being waged over who merited to be buried in the Cave of the Machpelah.
This could have ended up as no more than a family feud, but our Sages add that all of the kings of ancient Canaan and the princes of Ishmael wanted to participate in the war. Only upon realizing that the entire kingdom of Egypt had volunteered to fight for Jacob’s family did they reconsider.
With this new understanding, it becomes even more pressing for us to understand why the Torah contains such a lengthy description of the funeral itself, yet only hints at the war that accompanied it.
Our Sages take this one step further, stating that “Jacob, our forefather, did not die” [Talmud, Ta’anit 5b]. The Talmud challenge this assertion, noting that the Torah goes into a detailed description of how Jacob is embalmed and eulogized. It asks how anyone could say that someone whose funeral is described in such great detail did not die. The Talmud’s answer to this question is that “anyone whose seed lives is alive, as well.”
This statement is somewhat vague. Perhaps the Torah’s elaborate descriptions of the funeral had the purpose of conveying that the family knew that subsequent generations would be in exile in Egypt. Jacob’s sons are keenly aware that God’s promise to Abraham – “your people shall be strangers in a land not theirs” [ibid., 15:13] – was being fulfilled before their very eyes.
Jacob is fearful that his grandchildren will prefer the bountiful lands in Egypt over the barren rocks of the Hebron hills, and it is only natural for parents to want to be buried where their children can visit them. But Jacob doesn’t think about that, instead looking farther into the future. He wants his burial place to become a destination for his living descendants, not a monument to the dead.
In insisting on burial in the Cave of the Machpelah, Jacob waves an enormous banner for his descendants: the Land of Israel is where you belong. It is as if he is saying, “I don’t want anyone to visit my grave just to recite a few Psalms, light some candles, and return to Egypt. I want them to understand that I was buried in Hebron, because that is my place. At it is your place, as well.”
Jacob’s funeral procession shows us the way to life. This is why the portion is called “Vayechi” [And (Jacob) lived]. It directs us down the path of life, taking us home, to the land of our ancestors and our descendants.