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Parsha Vayechi | Who Am I To Judge?

Judge Gavel
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 – 50:26. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vayigash.

Genesis comes to an end with an epilogue of sorts that focuses on Jacob/Israel preparing for his death and Joseph forgiving his brothers. First, Israel makes Joseph swear that he’ll have him buried with his ancestors––not in Egypt.

Later, Israel notices his grandsons by Joseph for the first time and blesses them. From the text, we can tell that Israel is positively kvelling.

“I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children.”

He continues with the blessing, but placing his right and left hands on the wrong sons. It seems the oldest should get the right hand and the youngest the left, so Israel was blessing Ephraim as the oldest and Manasseh as the younger. (This is wrong, in case you’ve lost track of these Biblical names.)

When Joseph tries to correct his father, Israel insists he knows what he’s doing, declaring that “the younger brother shall be greater than [Manasseh]…”

And so settled the sibling rivalry for all time. Youngest is the best.

Blessings for the Tribe

Jacob’s death drawing near, he gathers his sons together so that “I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.”

You’d think this would be a time to offer some kind parting wisdom, but not all of it is so kind. He says to Reuben:

“Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;
For when you mounted your father’s bed,
You brought disgrace––my couch he mounted!”

Ouch. Could you imagine your frail father drawing you near his deathbed just to poetically whisper, “Son… You suck. You suck hard.”?

Simeon and Levi don’t get off easy either. Jacob criticizes them for their tendency to “slay men” when they are angry, switching to maiming oxen when pleased.

“Cursed be their anger so fierce,” says Jacob.

The blessings continue and get thinner by the time we get to the end of the line: Gad, Asher, and Naphtali. The exception is for, of course, Joseph, who gets a massive blessing praising him and what he’s done with his life. Jacob even decrees that:

“The blessings of your father
Surpass the blessings of my ancestors,
To the utmost bounds of the eternal hills.”

I can imagine Joseph thinking, “My, how the tables have turned,” and shooting a snarky look to his dipshit brothers––the ones who threw him in a pit to die a couple of parshiyot ago.

Burying Jacob/Israel

After completing his blessing of what will be known as the twelve tribes of Israel, he instructs his sons to bury him in the cave where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah are all buried. He then lies down in bed, “breathing his last,” and dies.

Joseph, the crier of the bunch of you can remember his wailing in last week’s Parsha, weeps over his father and kisses him. He then orders the physicians to embalm his father––a forty-day process. The Egyptians appear distraught as well, for some reason. They “bewailed him” for seventy days.

The time has come to bury Jacob/Israel and Joseph has no trouble getting permission from Pharaoh to do just that. In fact, all officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries join alongside all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household. It’s strange reading how supportive Pharaoh and Egypt are of Joseph knowing what’s about to happen to the Israelites in the next book.

A Substitute For God?

After burying their father, Joseph and the brothers return to Egypt. The brothers are worried that Joseph will still hold a grudge against them for that little pit-throwing episode. So, they send Joseph a message that seems likely to have been made up.

“Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.”

The next line reads: “And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.”

This guy sure doesn’t hold the tears back.

The brothers then fling themselves before Joseph, saying, “We are prepared to be your slaves.”

But Joseph won’t have it.

“Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result––the survival of many people.”

Basically, the shitty thing you did made the good thing––preparing for the famine––possible. All’s well that ends well.

This works out well in Joseph and co.’s world, but imagine someone else justifying terrible things as part of God’s plan. Oh, wait! You don’t need to imagine it. It happens all the damn time.

An Unceremonious End

What’s left of the Parsha zips through time, cutting to Joseph as an old man––old enough “to see children of the third generation of Ephraim…”

Joseph instructs his brothers to take his bones to “the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” That is to say, Joseph thinks God will lead his brothers to the Promised Land after his death and he wants to be re-buried there.

This seems odd to me because Joseph is the second youngest of the twelve. Joseph is one hundred and ten years old. Are his brothers, all of them presumably over one hundred years old, really in a position to grant this request? Maybe that’s one for the great-grandkids. You want someone with limber legs when schlepping bones across the desert.

The Parsha, and Genesis, end unceremoniously, noting the death of Joseph and that “he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.”

Onward to Parsha Shemot.

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