Parashat Vayehi

By Molly Karp

Our parashah this week, Vayehi, records the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph, and allows us to see that both of these two well-flawed individuals seem to grow significantly in character. They are able to look back at their mistakes and do some things differently at the end.

Adopting Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasheh as his own, Jacob reverses their birth order while blessing them. Although it is not explicitly clear whether Isaac knew he was blessing Jacob and not Esau with the blessing of the first-born, the text makes it clear that it was God’s will for the younger to receive the blessing of the elder; indeed, in Toldot we read God’s words to Rebecca:

Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.(25:23)

Jacob continues this theme of the youngest as the spiritual heir, the heir to the covenant, but skips the destructive subterfuge of the blessing that he received and goes directly to the heart of the matter. Although Joseph presents his children so that the eldest, Menasheh, is to Jacob/Israel’s right and Ephraim the younger child is to his left, Jacob crosses his hands to place his right hand on the head of Menasheh. When Jacob blesses Joseph with a blessing to his sons, Joseph attempts to correct the placement of his father’s hands, objecting that the first born should be under Jacob’s right hand, not his left. Jacob explains that while they will both become nations, and great,

Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he,
And his offspring will be plentiful enough for nations
So he blessed them that day, saying:
By you will Israel bless, saying:
May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh …(48:19-20)

On the other hand, while Jacob avoids the problem of subterfuge in giving the blessing, he still assigns a double portion to Joseph, continuing to favor him over his brothers, a bad habit that he cannot seem to shake.

Joseph too, has undergone growth and maturation. Following the death of their father, Joseph’s brothers fear that Joseph will now exact vengeance upon them for all the wrong that they did him. Although Joseph has already assured them that he believed that it was really God who sent him to Egypt, and that they should not be troubled by what they did to him (Genesis 45:5-8), following the death of Jacob their old worry rears its ugly head. The brothers send a message to Joseph, to share with him their fathers’ deathbed words, words that the biblical text does not relate:

Your father instructed, before his death, saying: ‘forgive the offense of your brothers and their guilt that they treated you so badly.’ So now, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.(50:16-17)

Joseph, having learned from his life that it was the unseen hand of God that directed his (mis)fortunes, unknowingly echoes words his father spoke to his mother long ago (Genesis 30:2):

‘Do not be afraid. Am I in place of God? You planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, for the sake of causing what is happening today – to keep alive a great nation. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ So he comforted them and spoke to their hearts. (50:19-21)

Joseph did not know where his journey in life would take him. Cast down into a world of misfortune brought about by his fathers’ destructive favoritism and his own teenage arrogance, Joseph rises from the pit only to be cast down again and again, each fall and rise of fortune helping him to grow a little more. Understanding that he had unique gifts, he needed to learn that his gifts were given to him to be used in service to others. Chosen by God for this service, in the end he understands that true greatness is in fulfilling the role that God has chosen for each of us in this life, whether as Vizier of Egypt, teacher, rabbi, cantor or shoemaker. A great teacher, Rabbi Gedaliah Druin, once taught me that true humility lies in the recognition that any gifts we have are not signs of our own greatness, but gifts from God, and that we are given those gifts for the sole purpose of making the world a better place. At the end, Joseph is able to accomplish this with the gifts that God has given him. I wish this for all of us as well.


Molly Karp is a rabbinical student at AJR.