Va-y’chi: Thoughts about Our Own Machpelah

We have reached the last Shabbat of the secular year, reading the last parashah of the Book of Genesis. To add to that double harbinger of finality, we also read, first of the death of Jacob, and then of the death of Joseph.

Ironic, but not unique in Torah, Va-y’chi, “And he lived,” is mostly about death. Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah,” also deals not with Sarah’s life but with her death and burial, in the Cave of Machpelah, where Jacob now insists to his sons, he, too, is to be buried.

But there is more to Va-y’chi than necrology, including some further lessons in those familiar Genesis themes of sibling relations and parenting. The parashah opens as 147-year-old Jacob, recognizing that his time is growing short, summons Joseph and extracts the promise that he not be buried in Egypt but in the ancestral plot. As an interesting side note, at this point, Jacob has been in Egypt for 17 years, paralleling the number of years that Joseph lived at home before his own unscheduled departure for Egypt. Sometime soon afterward, Joseph is summoned to his dying father’s bedside (interesting that he has to be summoned!), bringing along his two sons and opening the door to another of the problematic episodes in family dynamics which are so characteristic of B’reishit.

Jacob opens the meeting by telling Joseph that the two boys are to share in Grandpa’s estate along with their uncles – a privilege that he withholds from any future offspring Joseph may produce, echoing Abraham’s disinheriting the children of his marriage to Keturah. All grandchildren are equal but some are more equal than others. Having now told Joseph, “Okay, your kids are in the will,” he now fails to recognize those very kids. Then, when he goes to bless them, he insists, despite Joseph’s remonstrances, on giving the blessings contrary to birth order, claiming, but providing no evidence, that Ephraim, the younger, is superior to his brother Manasseh.

Then Jacob summons the rest of the boys (but not Dinah!) ostensibly to bless them and predict their futures, but instead talks about each son’s character – and especially character flaws, including scoldings that a more astute parent might have delivered timely. Again dismissing birth order, he identifies Judah as the new leader – Joseph being perceived still as their de facto leader in Egypt, but still enough of an outsider in his own family to preclude his leading them to their destiny. Worried that Joseph’s position may deter Pharaoh from letting Joseph leave Egypt to fulfill the promise of interment at Machpelah, he extracts a similar commitment from all the brothers, and dies. But Joseph does get the permission from Pharaoh. No big-deal “let my people go” necessary – this is still the Pharaoh who did know Joseph, and besides, the wives, children, and flocks are staying behind.

But Israel’s death reminds the brothers that the kid is still the big shot, and they get nervous: now that Pa is gone, will he seek revenge against them? They approach Joseph with a made- up story that Jacob had asked that Joseph forgive his brothers for what they had done to him. This is a palpable lie, because to the best of our knowledge, Jacob has never been told how Joseph came to be in Egypt. Fortunately, Joseph has finally mensched out and again reassures them that, whatever their intentions, God had meant it for good, so all was forgiven. As the parashah ends, Joseph dies, having also extracted a promise that his bones will not remain forever in Egypt, a promise that Moses is miraculously able to keep.

Is it another example of Joseph’s late-blooming menschlichkeit, or is it a result of having lived so many years away from the mishpachah, that Joseph, unlike the leaders of the three previous generations, is ready to stand fast for the cultural norm of first-born primacy? In our Shabbat table blessing of the children, we bless our boys that they may be as Ephraim and Manasseh – yet we have no Biblical evidence of anything these two did to merit being put forward as our role models. Au contraire, the rabbis tell us that Ephraim and Manasseh earned their place not for what they did, but for what they didn’t do – fight with one another. Unlike all the brothers that preceded them, it appears these two lived shevet achim gam yachad, in unity and harmony. Joseph the Wise was smart enough to avoid the parental favoritism that screwed things up chez Jacob and chez Isaac and Rebecca.

Why was burial at Machpelah so important to Jacob? First, he wanted to make sure that his family’s residence in Egypt would not be permanent, and that they would recognize their tie to the land promised by God to their forefathers. Second, he would be asserting his property rights not only to the burial plot, but to his family’s history of living in and around Hebron. Finally, he would finally make it up to Leah for his favoritism towards Rachel, and spend eternity sleeping next to her, one of the rare examples in Torah where the elder sibling comes out ahead.

Why it was important to Joseph to be buried in the Promised Land is less clear. After all, he had spent only 17 of his 110 years there, and his memories cannot have been totally pleasant. While he had clearly taken satisfaction in having fulfilled the prophecy of the sheaves bowing down, that appears to have been a temporal ambition and not a dynastic one. Maybe this was his final revenge on his brothers – giving them the task of repairing the damage of sending him away by charging them with the duty of bringing him home.

Of all the issues raised in Va-y’chi, I have been most consumed by the pre-occupation with a final resting place. In a subsequent post, I will discuss how this has played out in contemporary Reform Judaism.