“Reconciliation and Death”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, we learn of the passing of two great historic personages, Jacob and his beloved son, Joseph. (The passing and funeral of the patriarch, Jacob, have already been discussed in detail in our analysis of Vayechi 5766-2006).

Eliyahu Kitov masterfully weaves the various midrashim together, drawing a poignant portrait of this very sensitive time in the lives of the sons of Israel.

The Bible, in Genesis 50:14, describes the brothers’ return to Egypt after burying their father, Jacob, in Hebron, וַיָּשָׁב יוֹסֵף מִצְרַיְמָה הוּא וְאֶחָיו, וְכָל-הָעֹלִים אִתּוֹ לִקְבֹּר אֶת-אָבִיו, אַחֲרֵי, קָבְרוֹ אֶת-אָבִיו  And Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father, after he buried his father.

With father Jacob gone, Joseph’s brothers were rightfully concerned that Joseph would now avenge their treachery, repaying them for selling him into slavery.

To protect themselves, the brothers cravenly lie to Joseph. They concoct a story and claim that before he died, Jacob had commanded them to say to Joseph (Genesis 50:17), “Oh please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and their sin, for they have done you evil.” Upon hearing this, Joseph wept.

Not knowing what Joseph’s reaction would be, the brothers threw themselves at Joseph’s feet, offering themselves as slaves. Joseph allayed their fears by responding with unexpected compassion (Genesis 50:19-21), “Am I, instead of G-d. Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good, in order to accomplish…that a vast people be kept alive. So now, fear not, I will sustain you and your young ones.” And in this manner, Joseph comforted his brothers and spoke to their heart.

According to the Midrash, after the funeral had concluded, Joseph made a banquet before returning to Egypt. Joseph set his table apart from his brothers, so as to not be disrespectful to Judah, who he learned from his father’s blessing was the brother who was truly intended for kingship. The brothers, however, were convinced that the separation was because Joseph was angry. Another reason for the brothers’ fears, according to the Midrash, was that on his way back from the land of Canaan, Joseph had taken a turn to the North, first stopping in Shechem and then Dotan. In Dotan he found the pit where his brothers had thrown him, which was full of snakes and scorpions. There Joseph pronounced the blessing of G-d Who performed miracles for him. Joseph’s intention when making the blessing was to confirm that everything that his brothers had done was really part of a Divine plan. His brothers, however, perceived this as an expression of anger, and a possible part of Joseph’s plan for retribution. Apparently, the “galut mentality”–-fears resulting from exile–had already set upon the brothers.

It is important to note the prominent and interesting role played by the city of Shechem in the story of Joseph and his brothers. It was in Shechem that the brothers truly experienced their greatest moment of unity, when they rescued their sister, Dinah, and exacted vengeance upon all the residents of the city. It was to Shechem where the brothers, who were traumatized by their father’s irrational favoring of Joseph, went to graze their sheep, to underscore their unity and seek reassurance that they were still a family. It is near Shechem, in Dotan, where his brothers throw Joseph into the pit, and where Joseph now returns in order to be reconciled with his brothers. It is also in Shechem where a burial plot is purchased for Joseph. Perhaps the sepulcher is intended to serve as an eternal symbol of Joseph’s historic reconciliation with his brothers.

Joseph reassures his brothers that during the remaining years of their sojourn in Egypt, he will sustain their families and their children. Scripture testifies (Genesis 50:21), וַיְנַחֵם אוֹתָם, וַיְדַבֵּר  עַל-לִבָּם and Joseph comforted them and appealed to their emotions.

Because Joseph not only forgave his brothers, but also calmed them, he merited many years of happy life (Genesis 50:22), וַיֵּשֶׁב יוֹסֵף בְּמִצְרַיִם, הוּא וּבֵית אָבִיו; וַיְחִי יוֹסֵף, מֵאָה וָעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים Joseph dwelled in Egypt, he and His father’s household, and Joseph lived 110 years. Joseph also merits to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who were raised on his knees and who followed in his righteous path.

During the 110 years that he lived, Joseph served for 80 years as royalty, as viceroy of Egypt. These years were unsurpassed in glory. Only after his measure was full did the righteous Joseph pass on.

When Joseph dies, scripture states (Genesis 50:26), וַיִּישֶׂם בָּאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָיִם Joseph was placed in a coffin in Egypt. Apparently, the coffin was a special coffin, indicated by the vowel of the definite article that precedes אָרוֹן, the Hebrew word for coffin. Explaining this unusual grammatical form, the rabbis compare Joseph’s coffin to the Holy Ark in which the Tablets of the Ten Commandments were transported. While the coffins of his eleven brothers were carried out of Egypt on wagons during the exodus, Joseph’s coffin was carried, as was the Holy Ark, by humans, on their shoulders, next to the Holy Ark of Testimony.

The Midrash states that when the nations of the world saw these two arks traveling next to one another, they inquired regarding the nature of the arks’ contents. The people of Israel answered, “This is the ark of the deceased, Joseph, and this is the ark of the living G-d.” When the nations expressed astonishment, asking why the ark of the living G-d would be accompanied by the ark of the deceased, the people responded by explaining that the man who lies in this ark [Joseph] fulfilled everything that is found in the ark of the living G-d.

Thus, the often bitter story of Joseph comes to a most favorable conclusion.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this Friday, December 13, 2013 from dawn to the beginning of Shabbat (Kiddush). It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Have a meaningful fast.