Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 22 December 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Lasting Legacy

As Yaakov approaches the end of his days, he summons Yosef and swears Yosef to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, the burial place of Avraham, Yitzchak, Sarah, Rivka, and Leah. Yosef swears that he will fulfill his father’s final request.

Some time later, Yosef is summoned again to the deathbed of his father. This time, Yaakov blesses Yosef’s children Efraim and Menashe. First, he passes on the blessing that he was given by G-d, the blessing of fertility, and the particular blessing of becoming a “community of peoples.” This has specific meaning in that the tribe of Yosef will no longer be considered one tribe, but will be divided into two separate tribes — one of Efraim and one of Menashe. In this way, Efraim and Menashe assume the status of children, rather than grandchildren, of Yaakov.

After this pronouncement and before the actual blessing to these children, Yaakov makes an interesting comment that is seemingly out of place. He says to Yosef, “And I — when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road, when there was still a stretch of land to come to Efrat, and I buried her there on the way to Efrat, which is Beit Lechem.”

This statement is usually interpreted as an apology for his having insisted on being buried in the Cave of Machpela (indeed swearing Yosef to this), though he himself had not buried Rachel, Yosef’s mother, there. But if this was Yaakov’s intention, the statement should have come at the first meeting, the purpose of which was to instruct Yosef to bury him in the Cave of Machpela.

Clearly, then, the statement must relate to its context — the blessings given to Efraim and Menashe. After Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael, the Torah uses the two names, seemingly interchangeably. However, the

choice of Yaakov or Yisrael in any given context is deliberate. Yaakov is used as relating to Yaakov the person, whereas Yisrael is used in relation to the mission or future of the nation of Israel. Here, the name Yisrael is used up until this point, where the text switches to Yaakov, who then favors Yosef’s children with a double portion in terms of tribal formation. Following this pronouncement, the text switches back to the name Yisrael, as the children are blessed with words that express their eternal, national mission. This doubling of Yosef’s inheritance by counting his children as though they were children of Yaakov was a personal gift to Yosef. This privilege derived not from national considerations, but from individual personal ties which affected Yaakov the man.

Here, Yaakov recalls the woman he loved most deeply, the wife of his choosing, whom he had lost earliest and whose memory was most susceptible to being lost. Because she was not buried with the other patriarchs and matriarchs, he feared her memory and legacy might not endure in the collective memory of the people. Precisely the wife nearest to Yaakov’s heart, whom he had envisioned as the principle mother of his future nation, might vanish from the hearts and minds of that nation.

To guard against this, or perhaps to compensate for it, Yaakov elevates Rachel’s first born to the status of first- born by giving him a double inheritance of tribes. As G-d would ordain, some three thousand years later, the burial place of Rachel would occupy the most prominent and oft-visited burial place of all the patriarchs.

· Sources: Commentary, Bereishit 48:7

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