Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, IsraelAnd Joseph fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his [Joseph’s] neck” (Genesis 45:14).

The final verse of the last portion of Vayigash summarizes the astonishing achievement of the Israelites in Egypt: ‘And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen and they took possession of it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly’ (Genesis 47:27). Could anything be a clearer testament to the resilience of Jacob’s descendants who, in a relatively short period of time, managed to grow rich in real estate, to be fruitful and to multiply?

Yet according to Rashi, this very next verse, the opening of Vayechi, sends us in the exact opposite direction, a 180-degree turn for the worse, informing us that the Egyptian bondage was then beginning! Interestingly, Rashi’s interpretation is not based on the words of the verse itself (Genesis 47:28), but rather on the almost hidden or interior meaning of the Torah embedded in the white space – or lack of white space – between the final verse of Vayigash and the opening verse of Vayechi. The portion of Vayechi opens without a parchment hint that a new chapter is beginning, or that a new story is being told.

There are no paragraphs or indications of chapters in the text of the Torah scrolls. Rather, a white space – anywhere from a minimum of nine letters wide to the end of the entire line – is the Torah’s way of indicating that a pause or separation of some kind exists between the previous verse and the following section.

What is unique about Vayechi is that it is the only portion in the Torah with no white space preceding it, as the last verse in Vayigash flows right into the opening verse of Vayeĥi. This lack of a division leads Rashi to comment that the reason why our portion is setumah (closed) is because “…with the death of Jacob, the hearts and eyes of Israel become closed because of the misery of the bondage with which they [the Egyptians] had begun to enslave them” [Rashi ad loc.].

For Rashi, the achievement of Vayigash lasts no longer than the blink of an eye, or the amount of time it takes to finish one verse and begin another. In one verse the Israelites may be on top of the world, but Rashi wants us to understand that the message of the lack of white space is that we are now witnessing the beginning of the end.

But the truth is that the slavery does not come until a generation – and an entire biblical book – later, when we are told of the emergence of a new king over Egypt, ‘who did not know Joseph’ (Exodus 1:8). In the meantime, we are still in the book of Genesis; Joseph, with the keys to the treasury in his pocket, is the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and his kinsmen are doing astonishingly well on the Egyptian Stock Exchange. So why does Rashi’s commentary appear to be ‘jumping the gun’?

Rabbi David Pardo explains in his commentary Maskil l’David that the first intimations of Jewish slavery are indeed to be found in the portion of Vayechi, but in a later verse describing an apparently uncomfortable situation in the wake of Jacob’s demise:

“And when the days of mourning for Jacob were over, Joseph spoke to the house of Pharaoh saying, ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, my father made me swear, and he declared: I am dying. In my grave which I have dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me…’”(Gen. 50:4-5).

Does this request sound like words spoken by the Grand Vizier of Egypt? Does the number two figure at a Fortune 500 company, who undoubtedly confers with the president on a daily basis, need an appointment to see him, forced to go through the usual hierarchy of administrative personnel that junior staff have to go through? Why not a simple knock on the door on the part of Joseph?

Why does the Torah even go to the trouble of reporting the process by which Joseph presents a petition – through intermediaries – to have his father buried? And Joseph doesn’t even go through a secretary; he begs (‘if I have found favor in your eyes’) the ‘house of Pharaoh’, which generally refers to the household staff, the servants of Pharaoh. The Grand Vizier asks a maid or butler to whisper his need to bury his father in Pharaoh’s ear. Is this the level to which a second-in-command must stoop in order to get time off for a parent’s funeral?

I would suggest that perhaps the almost obsequious manner in which Joseph must arrange to have his request brought before Pharaoh indicates not so much a general change in Joseph’s political position, as the delicacy of this particular petition. Therefore, it serves as a moment of truth for Joseph as well as for the readers of his story.

Joseph may have reached the top of the social ladder in Egypt.  He speaks Egyptian, dresses as an Egyptian, has become renamed Egyptian (Tzafenat-Pane’aĥ), and is married to a native Egyptian (perhaps even to his previous master’s daughter). From slave to Prime Minister, Joseph has certainly lived out the great Egyptian dream. Now, however, he is forced to face the precariousness and vulnerability of his position.

Ordinarily a person wants to be buried in his own homeland where his body will become part of the earth to which he feels most deeply connected. Indeed, in the ancient world the most critical right of citizenship was the right of burial. The wise Jacob understands that Pharaoh expected Joseph to completely identify with Egypt, to bring up generations of faithful and committed Egyptians after all that his adopted country has given to him. But this was impossible for Jacob – and the patriarch hoped that it would also be impossible for his children and grandchildren as well. They were in Egypt, but not of Egypt. They might contribute to Egyptian society and economy, but they could never become Egyptians. Jacob understood that his burial in Canaan would be the greatest test of Joseph’s career, and would define the character of his descendants forever. Hence, he makes his beloved son solemnly swear not to bury him in Egypt.  Hence, our Midrash understands that Hebrew servitude in Egypt begins at this very juncture, when Joseph understands that the Hebrews would always be stranger-slaves in Egypt.  Indeed, Egypt is a story of every Jewish Diaspora in history.

Shabbat Shalom! 


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