This is dedicated to the memory of my father
Rav Moishe Berenholz A”H
on his fourteenth Yahrzeit.
On his mother’s side, my father was an eighth generation Yerushalmi, born and raised in the narrowness of Me’ah Sh’arim. His parents were afraid for his life because of his involvement with the underground fighting the British. In his early twenties they sent him to study in Yeshiva Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, where he earned his Rabbinical Ordination. Over the course of his life as an educator he taught Torah to many generations of young men and women. Throughout my life, his ex-students with whom I came into contact consistently recalled with fondness his bright smile and the words of Torah he taught them.
My father insisted that his children attend college, to acquire a profession and to become financially independent, responsible adults. He himself was interested in bookkeeping and social work. I became a financial analyst. My brother became an accountant, and my sister a social worker.
My father taught me how to read the Torah; how to daven for the “Amud”; how to blow shofar; and showed by example how to lead an honest life.
We studied Torah together and, for an extended period, spoke only in Hebrew. My father was a poet who had a clever way with words and phrases. He was an independent thinker and offered his own, sometimes new, interpretations of the Torah. Because of him I developed a love for the Hebrew language; a love for Torah learning and interpretation; and an appreciation for the words, their subtleties and the rhythm of the Torah text.
“To kiss and embrace our children and love them unconditionally— both those who are our “clones”, and especially those who have chosen a different path in their lives” (Rabbi R.Y. Eisenman)
The relationship between parent and child is not always smooth, but the grandparent/grandchild relationship is always filled with love and caring
Bless all offspring in one room at the same time, just as Yaakov did
Families remain the most important basis of freedom. Conflicts occur and must be managed. Family members experience a wide range of emotions including love, anger, rivalry, caring, disappointment, and quarreling. Nevertheless, “…family is the birthplace of freedom. Caring for one another, we learn to care for the common good” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
Forgiveness is possible (and desirable) in life. We have the freedom to learn from our mistakes, to change and prevent their recurrence.
At Yaakov’s request, Yosef swears not to bury him in Egypt
Yaakov blesses Yosef’s sons Efraim and Menasheh and raises these grandsons to the level of his own sons, either because they didn’t fight with one another or because he favored their father
On his deathbed, Yaakov explains why Yehuda is most qualified to be the nation’s leader, then blesses his sons
Yaakov dies at age 147 and is buried in M’aras Hamachpeilah in the land of Canaan
Yosef allays his brothers’ fears
Before he dies (at age one hundred and ten), Yosef asks his brothers to take his bones with them when they eventually leave Egypt
On grandparents and grandchildren
The Only Parsha that is Stuma (“closed”)
Every other Parsha in the Torah is followed by some amount of spacing before the following Parsha begins. P’tucos (open) have a gap of blank spaces until the end of the line and then the next Parsha starts at the beginning of the next line. S’tumos (closed) have a gap of at least nine spaces and the next Parsha begins on the very same line. Parshas Vayechi has no spaces separating it from the previous Parsha, Meikatz!
Rashi cites two Midrashic explanations:
1. When Yaakov died the heart and eyes of Israelites become closed as their suffering began
2. Yaakov wanted to divulge the secret of the Truth of the End, but it was withheld/closed from him
Other possible explanations:
In this Parsha the lives of both Yaakov and Yosef are closed (i.e., they die).
Yaakov may have been having “senior moments” (dementia?) forgetting what it was he wanted to say and then momentarily not recognizing his two grandsons who were standing near him
Jennifer Stein understands the phrase “being closed up” in a positive light: that the entire family was whole again, bound together (“closed up”) as a complete unit.
“Sim Na Yadcha Tachas Yerayche” (“Place Your Hand Under My Thigh”)
When Yaakov realizes he is dying, he calls his son Yosef and insists that when he dies, he be transported out of Egypt to be buried next to his parents in Hevron in the Land of Canaan. Even after Yosef immediately agrees to this request to be buried in the cave of Machpeilah Field, Yaakov demands that he swear to it by placing his hand on Yaakov’s thigh:
Ibn Ezra views this as a symbol of submission
The words mean and convey that failure to do what is requested will result in sterility, since children issue from the area of the thigh or loins of their father. Alternatively, it may mean that the children will avenge the act of disloyalty. Thighs may have been viewed as the locus of power because of their proximity to the genitalia
This oath may have involved touching the genitalia, and the oath’s power derived from swearing on a holy item of commandment (i.e., circumcised male member—which represents a sign of the Covenant between Man and God).
Today courts use a Bible for the administration of an oath because that Book is the most holy thing Man possesses. It is the holiest thing between Man and God.
The Latin word testes is related to testimony or testifies. In ancient Greece testicles of slaughtered animals were used in deciding homicide cases. It has been said that the most ancient way of administering an oath was by placing the hand between the thighs on the genitals. It has been said that in ancient Roman courts, men supposedly took oaths while holding their testicles although there are hundreds of passages referring to oaths or describing oaths in the Latin corpus, and while sometimes the oaths are described in detail not even one of them refers to holding another person’s testicles.
• Made his home in Egypt for 17 years...coincidentally (?) the same number of years Yosef lived with him in Canaan before being sold into slavery
• Makes his son Yosef swear not to bury him in Egypt
• On his deathbed, is visited by Yosef who comes with his two sons
• Initially does not recognize his grandsons, inquiring “who are these?” [He appears to have been taken aback and surprised either because they were dressed in Egyptian garb or because of a vision he had predicting that some of their descendants would be less-than-model Israelites.] Yosef responds that “…these are my sons whom God has given me in this place”. Rabbi R.Y. Eisenman of Passaic, N.J. hears in Yosef’s words the voice of the proud father who asserts that he loves his sons unconditionally, no matter how they dress now and no matter what their progeny may turn out to be. He is pleading with his father not to be put off by the garb and the life style choices they and/or their offspring may make because they are his children whom he loves deeply. Yaakov, the “Zaydi” accepts his son’s advice and “he kissed them and embraced them” [i.e., Yosef’s sons]. The Torah is showing us by example, how we must kiss and embrace our children and love them unconditionally— both those who are our “clones”, and especially those who have chosen a different path in their lives. Never forget, concludes Rabbi Eisenman, that our children, our special gift from God, want and need our unconditional love.
• Confers a special blessing on Yosef’s sons -- mentioning and/or physically placing Efraim before Menashe-- and elevates them to the tribal status of his own sons, in reversal of primogeniture (the right of the first-born child, usually the eldest son, to inherit the parents' entire estate).The language that he uses is a formula of legal adoption, according to Bible scholar Robert Alter. Menashe and Efraim appear to be the only brothers in the book of Bereshis that are not plagued with the effects of sibling rivalry that dominate the behavior and emotions: Cain and Hevel; Yaakov and Eisav; Yosef and his brothers
• Recognizing that there was a protective divine force (angel) with him throughout his life, blesses Yosef with the prayer Hamalach Hagoayl Osi (“May the angel sent by God to look after me from the time I was born until now, bless these boys and may they be called by my name and by the name of my fathers Avraham and Yitzchak; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”) The Hebrew word for “grow” is v’yidgu which is related to the Hebrew word for fish (dag). Fish are known for their fertility (laying many eggs) and are thought to be resistant to the “evil eye” because they are under water
• In blessing Yosef’s sons, places his right hand on the head of Efraim, the younger son and his left hand on the head of Menashe, the older son
• Acknowledges Yosef’s protestations that he should have placed his right hand on the head of Menashe, the first born, but explains that the younger brother is destined to be greater than the older one
• Continues blessing his grandsons saying, “The nation of Israel will always bless its children stating, ‘may God make you like Efraim and Menashe’ purposely saying Efraim first” (presumably to indicate that Efraim would take precedence in the order of tribes)
• Says to Yosef “…I have given you Shechem achad above your brothers which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.” The Hebrew phrase Shechem achad literally means “one shoulder.”
o Some interpret this to mean that Yaakov treats Yosef as his real first born, entitled to a double portion (of inheritance) which he accomplishes by adopting Menashe and Efraim as his own sons
o Others think Shechem refers to an (extra) “portion” of land being given to Yosef, either land he conquered militarily (an event not recorded in the Torah) or possibly the city of Shechem itself-- a view supported by a Midrash that states that Yaakov participated passively in the conquest of Shechem
o Rabbi Benno Jacob argues that this refers to the piece of land Yaakov bought near Shechem for 100 pieces of money which he is now giving to Yosef as a burial place. His reference to sword and bow is a witty reference meaning his conquest utilized peaceful “weapons” (i.e., silver “bullets” to pay for it)
o Robert Alter notes that the phrase occurs in only one other place in Tanach (Zephaniah 3:9) where it is used adverbially to mean “with one consent” or “with one accord”. Accordingly, Yaakov is giving his “concerted, unswerving intention and execution” to the legal elevation of his grandsons and to the transfer of land he captured from the Emorites
Yaakov Gathers his Sons Around his Death Bed…
…to share his opinion of them, to rebuke them for their past vile behavior, and to alert them to what may befall their descendants in the future. “His words are more prophecy and moral criticism than blessing” (Dennis Prager). According to Abravanel (cited by Rav B.S. Jacobson), the purpose of Yaakov’s comments on the nature and character of each of his sons is to explain why Yehuda, and not any other of them, is destined to be the leader of the Israelite nation. Then he blesses each of them as a dying father “each with the blessing suitable to him with varying words of blessing that the Bible does not deem necessary to report.” (Rabbi Benno Jacob)
He begins with Leah’s six sons, then the four sons of the two handmaidens and ends with Rachel’s two sons. Yehuda and Yosef are the prime figures; ten of the twenty-three verses are devoted to them.
God and religion are avoided, except for the one verse “I wait for thy salvation O Lord” which he says after talking about Dan. Others suggest that these words were really a prayer to God to give him the strength to continue this intense, exhausting communication to his children:
Reuven, who should have been the leader by being the firstborn, is unsuitable to lead because of his reckless behavior (“unstable as water”)
Cursed the fierce rage and cruel fury (but not them) of Shimon and Levi who, with their instruments of crime, killed men in anger (when they tricked and then murdered the residents of Chamor and his son Shechem’s city to avenge the rape of their sister Dina)
The leadership scepter will never leave Yehuda,
• Whose brothers will acknowledge and submit to him
• Who will maintain military leadership
• Who will exhibit mature deliberation and stubborn determination
Per Benno Jacob’s interpretation, a reconciliation of the tribes after they split into the Northern and Southern kingdoms is hoped-for at sacred Shilo, the center of Israel before King David, where great national events took place. Yehuda will become the largest tribe and will occupy about half the land. It survived the Babylonian destruction the deportation of the Israelites in 586 B.C.E. “It made the survival of the Jews possible. It is from Judah that the Jews get their name” (Dennis Prager)
Yehuda is characterized by his father as a crouching, awesome lion. He is the one among the brothers who experiences the most dramatic personality change…
Able to resist his brothers’ proposal to murder their brother Yosef
Willing to admit error during the Tamar incident
Standing up to the powerful Egyptian ruler to beg him to release his baby brother Benyamin from prison-- even at risk to his own life
Zevulun, whose seacoast border will extend northward to Sidon, the great Phoenician trade city, will be busily occupied with trade and building wealth
Yissachar is strong but lazy. With his powerful body, he will work hard to develop the land, and will have no interest in engaging in war. Ultimately, he will become a slave forced to do labor like a prisoner of war
Dan, who will not live in the security of fortified settlements, is both a just judge as well as a valiant fighter, who will avenge Israel’s enemies with guerilla warfare, much like a horned viper that bites the horse’s heel causing the horse and rider to fall backward
Gad, whose inheritance will be on the eastern side of the Jordan River, will retaliate against attacking enemy raiders utilizing darting, agile lethal assault by attacking their heel (with snake imagery reminiscent of the serpent in the Eden story)
Asher’s lush inheritance will provide the richest foods and tasty delights, enabling him to be a royal provider… but never a king
Naphtali, a faithful servant, is compared to a full-bearing dependable field that grows beautiful trees or, according to others, is like a free-spirited deer that delivers beautiful words or messages of victory
Yosef is a handsome man to whom girls are attracted but, because he was/ is hated by his brothers, cannot be their leader. He has the blessings of fruitfulness and military security. He remains resolute and is a shepherd and builder of Israel
Benyamin, whose descendants will be known for martial prowess (like a wolf that grabs and tears its prey and devours plunder) lacks balance of judgment
Yaakov dies and is…
At age147, “…was gathered to his people” which, argues Dennis Prager, is a phrase that alludes to the existence of an afterlife
Mourned for seven days. [According to some, this is the source of the shiva seven-day mourning period.]
Brought to the land of Canaan accompanied by his sons and by an extensive Egyptian entourage consisting of dignitaries, chariots and horsemen to protect and to assure Yosef and his family’s return to Egypt
Buried in the Cave in the field of Machpeilah next to his wife Leah. The Torah repeats that this land was purchased legally and belongs to the Jewish people, as if anticipating that our rights to the land would be continually contested
o Reassures his brothers that he will provide for them [“…for am I instead of God?”] and that all their behavior was part of a Divine master plan to establish a great nation of Israel. (The brothers, fearing his wrath, lied and told him that their father had asked Yosef to forgive their offenses. They then offered to be his slaves.) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks again emphasizes that Yosef’s behavior toward his brothers “is the first recorded moment in history in which one human being forgives another” and that “humanity changed the day Yosef forgave his brothers. When we forgive, and are worthy of being forgiven, we are no longer prisoners of our past”
o Makes his brothers swear that when God eventually releases the nation of Israel from Egypt “take my bones out of here”. Presumably Yosef felt it was essential that he be buried in Egypt. The stage is set for captivity –but also includes a promise that the period of enslavement will end with an Exodus. The Hebrew root-word for “bones” also means “essence”. Perhaps on a deeper level, Yosef was encouraging his brothers to integrate into their lives his own essence/ persona-- loving, forgiving, developing “street smarts”, and being devoted to family.
o Is one hundred and ten years old when he dies; is embalmed; and is placed in a sarcophagus in Egypt
On Grandfathers and Grandchildren
Yaakov’s blessing to his grandsons may have been selected as the blessing of fathers to their sons on Friday night because Efraim and Menashe were the first Israelite sons born in exile who kept the faith. Also, they were the only brothers in the Torah who seemed to get along. These hopes for observance and harmony are what we want to transmit to our children.
There are many examples in the Torah of parents blessing children, but Yaakov’s is the sole instance of grandparent blessing a grandchild. Rabbi Sacks points out that the relationship between parent and child is not always smooth, but the grandparent/grandchild relationship is always filled with love and caring. Grandparents bless their grandchildren and are blessed by them. Therefore, he suggests, this grandparent blessing became the model of parental blessing.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi states “whoever teaches his grandson Torah is regarded as if he had received the Torah from Mt. Sinai”. But elsewhere he says, “whoever hears the parasha from his grandchild is as if he heard it directly from Mt. Sinai”. Clearly, Rabbi Joshua recognizes the double privilege of teaching and being taught by our grandchildren. The interaction with his grandchildren brought Yaakov’s troubled life to a serene conclusion. Rabbi Sacks concludes that, like Yaakov, we want to transmit to our children both our history and our concern for, and optimism about, the future.
An End…and a Beginning
The book of Bereshis starts with birth and ends with Yosef’s death and burial in a coffin. It began with God and His breathing life and bringing stability into what was primordial disorder, desolation and darkness. Robert Alter notes that Yosef’s death brings to close the Torah’s history of the early generations of the world but also begins a new cycle of creation--this time the formation of the nation of Israel-- with a proliferation of births and a realization of the divine blessings to Mankind to be fruitful and multiply. This also may explain why even though the parsha is filled with strife, argument and death (first of Yaakov and then of Yosef),both its name and its first verse are about living [ “And he (Yaakov) lived…”]. There is no threat to generational continuity.
Yosef’s dark coffin yields to the open tevah (ark) in the Nile in which baby Moshe is hidden. The imagery of the little ark in the river is reminiscent of the second “creation and rebirth” that Noach and his tevah passengers experienced after the destructive flood that annihilated a sinful society.