Time After Time

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Vayechi Today and Tomorrow

“Patience is a virtue.” – Prudentius

Jacob falls ill and “they” tell Joseph the news. Immediately, Joseph grabs his two sons and runs to his father’s death bed. Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons using language that is similar to the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The simple reading of the text indicates that Jacob is giving the spiritual heirship that he inherited from Abraham and Isaac to Joseph and his two sons.

Two of Jacob’s signature moments involve last wills and testaments. As young man he snatched the death bed blessings and spiritual heirship of Isaac from his twin Esau. As a dying man he blesses his own children. Jacob swooped in and nabbed the blessings before Esau could obtain the blessings. This cunning move changed the course of history and made Jacob’s life significantly more uncomfortable.
It seems that Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps. Joseph does not wait for Jacob’s invitation to all the brothers, he goes for the primary blessing on his own before anyone else can get it first. Jacob seems to be oblivious to the obvious similarity between Joseph’s move and his own. Then Jacob calls all his sons for blessings and Joseph gets a second rate blessing. This time, Judah is given the primary blessing and Joseph gets a bit of poetry about vines.

Similarly, Jacob instructed Joseph to have him buried with his parents and grandparents in Canaan. Then after the blessings to all the brothers, Jacob commands all his sons to bury him in Canaan. But immediately after Jacob dies, Joseph takes the lead again. He handles the burial rites. He escorts Jacob’s coffin to Canaan and some of the brothers come along for the ride.

I think the key to these somewhat confusing and contradictory accounts is in Jacob’s introduction to his blessings to the brothers. “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days.” It seems that these blessings were not applicable immediately. Jacob gathered his 12 sons to tell them about their destination in the future. Eventually, Judah will be king of Israel. But right now, Joseph was their leader.

This explains why Jacob did not object when Joseph grabbed the blessing early. It was only a temporary blessing of leadership. It was not similar to the blessing Jacob took from Esau. That was a blessing for all times. Joseph took care of Jacob’s burial because he was still the leader of the family. When Jacob tells his 12 sons to bury him in Canaan he says “Ani ne’esaf el ami” – “I am gathered to my people.” Ne’esaf shares common letters with the Hebrew spelling of Joseph and this usage might be an allusion to Joseph. A few verses later the same root letters appear twice in one verse. It’s striking. Jacob could be hinting that for now, this job will be handled by Joseph.

That is how Genesis ends. Joseph is the king. But as we will read next week, the new king of Egypt “lo yada et Yosef” – “did not know Joseph.” (The word yada is pretty close to Yehuda, the Hebrew spelling of Judah.) I think this might indicate the end of Joseph’s rule and the start of Judah’s rule.

Jacob’s life can be divided into discrete phases. Growing up in Isaac’s home, living with Laban, building a family in Canaan, melancholy after Joseph was taken from him, and his golden years in Egypt.

Perhaps, Jacob was uniquely positioned to have the insight to understand that life is fluid and leadership can change from time to time. There’s no need to say that what is today will always be and what will always be must be today. The Joseph phase was not over yet so there was no reason to oust him just because Judah will eventually be king. Jacob was patient. But above all, he was capable of seeing life in bite sized chunks instead of an unchanging flat plane.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the founder of shulontheinternet.com.
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