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February 13, 2014

Parashat Vay’hi
Hazzan Marcia Lane

As a Jew, and in particular as a hazzan, I’ve always felt very comfortable with life in thegolah, in exile from the Land of Israel. As much as I love it when I’m there, I feel my Judaism strengthened by my life here in the United States. In the final parashah of the book of Genesis, Vay’hi, we close out the narrative of the families of our patriarchs and prepare for the next story, one that will take the tribes descended from those patriarchs from servitude in Egypt to the brink of the Land of Canaan, which will later become Israel. The essence of Parashat Vay’hi is life and death, specifically the lives and deaths of Jacob and his beloved son Joseph. Curiously, the ways in which they lived are not necessarily reflected in the events surrounding their deaths. Is there something to be learned from these two men about relationships to family, to the land of exile versus the Land of Canaan/Israel, and to the past or future of the Jewish people?

Vay’hi Ya’akov be-eretz Mitzrayim….” ‘So Jacob lived in Egypt ….’ The Torah relates that Jacob spent his final seventeen years in Egypt, probably the least troubled of his 147 years. The previous 130 years involved deceptions and struggles with his brother Esau, fleeing his home on threat of death, serving his father-in-law Laban for many years, strife between his wives, the loss of his son Joseph, the death of Rachel in childbirth … a life that was, in his own words, short and bitter. Not short by our standards, but short in comparison with those of his grandfather Abraham who lived to 175 years, and of his father Isaac who lived to 160. Although his life prior to Egypt had been filled with pain and loss, Jacob extracts a promise from Joseph to bury him in the Cave of Mahpelah, in the place where his father and grandfather and his wife Leah were buried. He extracts a promise from Joseph: “Im-na matzati heyn be-eyneha …” He speaks to his son in the language of a petitioner, acknowledging that the son has attained a far higher stature than the father. ‘If I have found favor in your eyes… bury me with my fathers.” (Gen. 47:29-30)  So even though the years in Canaan were difficult years, Jacob is attached by language, by kinship, and by custom, to the past and to the land of his fathers, the land of promise. At the moment of his death the verse says, “and he was gathered to his people.” (Gen. 49:33)  Jacob’s death is a link to the past. His sons fulfill their promise to reunite their father’s bones with those of his wife Leah and with his ancestors in the cave of Mahpelah.

By contrast, Joseph spent his first seventeen years in conflict with his brothers, the following thirteen years first as a servant to Potiphar and then as a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon. But the bulk of Joseph’s 110 years were spent in luxury and privilege in Egypt. Second only to Pharaoh, Joseph had a life of ease, a life of assimilation to Egyptian ways. His clothing, manners, even his speech are so altered by his experiences that his own brothers don’t recognize him until he reveals himself to them. Joseph may be a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, but he lives in the present. We are told that he lived to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When his time comes to be ‘gathered to his kin,’ Joseph puts very different conditions on his brothers than did Jacob. “I die, but God will surely remember you, and will bring you up out of this land to the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” He has them promise, “When God remembers you, you shall carry my bones from here.” (Gen. 50:24-25)  Joseph’s words are less like petition and more like prophecy. He has the authority to demand that his brothers take him, upon the occasion of his death, out of Egypt, but that’s not what he wants. Although his early history with his brothers had been one of conflict, Joseph wants to remain in Egypt with his brothers, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Only when they all leave will he leave. And when they finally do return, Joseph will not be interred with his ancestors in the Cave of Mahpelah. “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, were buried in Shechem, in the plot of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor ….” (Joshua 24:32)

In a way, Jacob is like those Jews who, no matter what the difficulties, feel drawn back toEretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. They are filled with an undeniable yearning. Joseph is like those of us for whom life in galut, in exile from the land, can be fruitful. That despite the difficulties, life in foreign lands can still be happy and productive. We want to return, but perhaps not yet. We see our Jewish lives thriving, even among strangers. And the truth is, Judaism needs all of us: native Israelis, Jews that make aliyah, and the ones who remain in other lands. We are all part of the family. We all strengthen Am Yisrael,the people Israel.


Hazzan Marcia Lane has served congregations in New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. She currently lives in Nashville.