Parshat Vayhi

Summary: Vayhi is the 12th and last parasha in the Book of Genesis spanning chapters 47:28-50:26. Though named Vayhi (he lived), it records the ends of the patriarch Jacob’s life and of Joseph his favoured son.

The parashah begins with Jacob’s request to Joseph not to be buried in Egypt and with Jacob blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim & Menashe, after which he blessed each of his other sons by name. To fulfil his oath to his father, Joseph asked permission of Pharaoh to journey to Canaan. The Egyptian government dispatched for Jacob, who died age 147, an elaborate entourage, and a state funeral was held at the border town of Goren HaAtad.

The parasha ends with Joseph reassuring his brothers he held no malice toward them and with his promise to sustain them until his demise. Joseph, who merited to see three generations of his descendants, made his brothers swear an oath they too would take his bones from Egypt when the Almighty remembered and elevated them once again out of this land. Upon his death, age 110 years old, Joseph’s body was embalmed and put into a casket.

Comment: Vayhi tries to bring closure to the many complicated relationships of Bereshith. In particular to the issue of leadership within Jacob’s family – which of the sons would head the next generation – and who would receive the Divine blessing and legacy promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

A famous Rembrandt 1656 painting of Jacob Blessing Joseph’s Sons depicts (inaccurately) a pastoral family scene with Ephraim & Menashe as young princes – not too dissimilar to when Jacob appeared before Isaac to take his brother Esau’s blessing. Yet, all is not so idyllic.

Let us imagine the 17 years after Jacob’s resettlement in Egypt and his delight in being close to Joseph. The family spread out, was prosperous, with their father re-established as patriarch. Yet, already tension existed.

Jacob realised that Egypt was only a step along the journey. For one who had lived in Canaan and had dreamed of angels at Bet El, what an unfortunate place to die. Why during those 17 years didn’t Jacob return on his own to Canaan? Why did he have to ask his son to pledge an oath to take his remains there instead?

Travel for Jacob and his family must already have been difficult. In fact, when the time came to bury their father, Joseph had to seek permission through an intermediary in the ‘house of Pharaoh’, the proximate relationship had grown distant. And, the brothers, when escorting their father’s coffin to Canaan, had to leave behind their children and livestock. Freedom of movement seemed already restricted.

Ironically, within a generation, the descendants of Jacob would propagate and assimilate and when the enslavement began it would no longer matter who was the favoured son because soon they would all be treated equally with Egyptian contempt.

The lesson relevant to our community today, perhaps, is that infighting plays into the hands of our enemies. And, in the end, only our reliance on Divine Providence can redeem us.