Judaism: Torah Lights on Vayechi: Jacob, Joseph, Judah
Efrat, Israel – "Then Jacob called for his sons and said… 'Gather yourselves and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father.'" (Genesis 49:1)
The Book of Genesis has reached its closing chapter, with Jacob, grandfather of the emerging tribes of Israel, lying on his death bed surrounded by his family.
Our sages teach that Jacob prayed to God for a warning before death; an illness that would provide him the opportunity to prepare to take leave of the world by placing his household and business in order, giving and seeking forgiveness, righting past wrongs and expressing his legacy for the future.
Jacob is 147 years old as he reviews his many experiences and peregrinations, his trials and his triumphs, the relationships he nurtured and the relationships he neglected. Now, as his entire life passes before him, he expresses his last will and testament. This is not about giving material gifts to his children; instead he praises and chastises each one, assessing their strengths, charging them to use their gifts for the good of self, family and world.
What clearly emerges is how much Jacob has learned from his children, how far he has come from the young father who prematurely elevated the precocious firstborn of his most beloved wife to position of familial leadership.
Judah is his heir apparent, accepted by all the brothers as leader. Leadership must be won by the willing acclamation – it cannot be imposed from without by paternal fiat.
Judah’s most noteworthy trait is his ability to repent and change, his ability to rise above his weaknesses: “From the torn and bespattered cloak you have risen, my son” (Gen. 49:9). From your sale of Joseph to your willingness to become a slave in Egypt in place of Benjamin, from your having forsaken one son of Rachel to your having assumed personal responsibility for her other son.
Judah’s lionesque strength manifests itself in his ability to overcome and change himself, in his ability to teach by knowledge and example rather than by physical force and the sword. He is the peaceful unifier of the family, and from there shall he unify the world with the ingathering of nations and the peaceful prosperity gleaned from plentiful vineyards.
Joseph is the most charming and fruitful of the brothers, a ben-porat (fruitful bough), which comes from the Hebrew pri (fruit) or the Aramaic apirion, meaning charm or grace (B.T. Bava Metzia 119a and Rashi ad loc). He receives the material blessings of “the heavens above and the abyss crouching below.” He is certainly master over his brothers in Egypt by dint of his grand viziership, but remains separated and divided from them in his elevated status.
Joseph has changed drastically from the arrogant kid brother whose dreams expressed his desire for Egyptian agriculture rather than Israelite sheepherding, who saw himself and not God as the center of the family and even of the cosmos. When he stands before Pharaoh, a chastened Joseph gives full credit to God, and with his last breath he asks to be buried in the Land of Israel.
Nevertheless, he cannot be the ultimate leader of the family and progenitor of the Messiah because, for most of his life, he expended his energies toward the furtherance of Egypt rather than Israel and the family mission.
Moreover, he never repents for his immature braggadocio – and it is only repentance, like that of Judah, which brings atonement, at-one-ment, true family unity.
Joseph does forgive his brothers for their cruelty toward him, however, and he even forgives his father for having mismanaged the internal family. Joseph teaches that it was God Himself who extracted from their jealous hatred the building blocks for redemption; did not Joseph save them from starvation in Canaan, and was he not the catalyst for their subsequent Egyptian enslavement and redemption? None of these momentous events would have happened had Joseph not been victimized by his siblings.
It is Jacob, however, who repents most deeply. The most painful lesson that he learns is that blind Isaac may have been a more profound seer than was the wise Rebekah, that in a family, blessings can be divided among many sons, aspects of leadership can be shared, no son ought be rejected, each sibling is to be held responsible for every other sibling. Esau should have been co-opted, not rejected. Only the unified family can be greater than the sum of its parts.
Hence, Jacob does what his father Isaac had wished to do: he bestows the birthright scepter of religious and universal leadership upon Judah, the material blessings of a double portion upon Joseph, and continues to divide the many other blessings among the rest of his children. Ultimately he realizes that nothing is as important as the continuity of the entire family and the transmission of its narrative and mission into the future.
He also recognizes that in singling out young Joseph above all the other brothers, he – Jacob – had really been responsible for the subsequent enmity and jealousy that almost tore the family asunder. Hence he can truly forgive all of his sons for their deceptions, sincerely bless them and charge them with the continuity of the Abrahamic legacy, leaving this earthly journey at peace with himself and his beloved family.