Home > Divrei Torah > VaY’hi


May 4, 2006

By Michael Kohn

Vayehi is the final parashah of Sefer Bereshit and brings to a close not only the lives of Jacob and Joseph but the narrative of the Patriarchs as well. It is a major transition point in the Torah narrative, inasmuch as the second chapter of Sefer Shemot begins with the birth of Moses. And as Prime Minister Sharon lies seriously ill in Hadassah Hospital, regardless of the outcome of his current condition, it is obvious that a major transition point, like that described in this parashah, is occurring today in Israel.

In Vayehi, the Torah employs interesting juxtapositions of the third Patriarch’s two names’Jacob and Israel’perhaps as a way of illustrating the transition. For example, at the very outset, the Torah tells us: ‘Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the span of Jacob’s life was one hundred and forty-seven years. When the time for Israel to die drew near . . . .’ (Gen. 47:28’29) And when the Patriarch speaks to Joseph at the beginning of the parashah, he speaks as Jacob, but after Joseph swears that he will bury Jacob at the cave in the tomb of his fathers, it is ‘Israel [who] prostrated himself on the head of the bed.’ (Gen 47:31)

Obviously it was Jacob, the person, who lived in Egypt for those seventeen years, but the name Israel carries a double message. On the one hand, the Torah speaks of Jacob’s impending death but could also be referring to the oppression of the Israelites of which the Torah speaks in the next chapter. And, unlike Rashi, Sforno interprets Israel’s bowing, not to Joseph, but to God, which symbolizes the Israelites’ dependence on God, not man.

Once he sees Joseph’s sons, Jacob speaks as Israel. (Gen. 48:3, 8) It is as Israel that he brought them close and extended his right hand and places it on Manasseh’s head. (Gen. 48:13’14) And in bestowing his blessing on Ephraim and Manasseh, he tells them: ‘On you will Israel bless . . . .’ (Gen. 48:20) Turning his attention to Joseph, Israel tells him: ‘I am dying; but God will be with you and will bring you back to the land of your ancestors.’ (Gen. 48:21) Here Jacob addresses the future’of Israel as a nation and as a people.

Thereafter, Jacob calls his sons to his bedside and bids them to ‘listen to Israel, your father.’ (Gen. 49:1’2) As to Simeon and Levi, the Patriarch says that he ‘will separate them in Jacob, and . . . disperse them in Israel.’ And as to Joseph, he says that ‘his arms of his hands were made firm by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob’from there, the shepherd, the rock of Israel.’ (Gen. 49:24)

From the extensive use of the two names, the Torah is making both explicit and implicit references to Israel of the future’the people and the nation. The final reference in this parashah is to the ‘shivtei Yisrael‘the tribes of Israel.’ (Gen. 49:28, 33) In the ninth verse of Sefer Shemot the Torah refers, for the first time, to ‘b’nei Yisrael’‘the ‘Israelites.’ Thus, the transition’from Ya’akov to Yisrael to shivtei Yisrael to b’nei Yisrael‘is by then, completed.

Prime Minister Sharon, in many respects, is a patriarch of modern Israel. He is one of the few living individuals who fought for Israel’s independence, rose to the rank of Alef in the IDF, winning major battles in subsequent wars, and thereafter, became the political leader of the nation. His successor is likely to be a person without that background, one who grew up in post-independence Israel.

Moses became the leader of a nation, not surrounded by hostile nations, as did most of contemporary Israel’s previous Prime Ministers, but in a land within which the Israelite people were being oppressed. With Palestinian terrorism and homicide bombers operating within Israel, Sharon’s successor faces a similar situation. And depending on the outcome of the Palestinian elections, Sharon’s successor may face a leader every bit as hard- hearted as Pharaoh.

The new political party Prime Minister Sharon recently founded is named Kadimah‘ Forward. In this time of transition, let us pray, not only for Ariel Sharon, but that his successors indeed move Israel forward toward peace and that it not take forty more years of wandering to attain that goal.