In the portion of Vayechi, the final portion of the book of Genesis, we read of Jacob’s blessings to his sons and grandsons on his deathbed, and his final passing and burial. The book concludes with Joseph’s final days, as well, and his death and embalming in Egypt.
Jacob Nears Death
After 17 years in Egypt, Jacob feels the end of his days approaching. Knowing he would die there and not return to his homeland, he makes Joseph swear to bury him in the Cave of Machpelah with his wife, parents and grandparents.
The Israel Bible emphasizes Jacob’s request. Even though his life is comfortable in Egypt, Jacob knows it is not the place where he belongs. If he cannot return to the Land of Israel in life, he at least wants to be brought there after death. Joseph learns from his father’s yearning, and likewise exacts a promise from his descendants to take his bones with them when they ultimately leave Egypt (50:25).
Some time later, Joseph hears his father is ill, and unlikely to recover. He takes his two sons to visit Jacob. Jacob tells Joseph that God appeared to him in Luz in the Holy Land and promised to give him numerous descendants and the Land of Israel as their inheritance. He claims Joseph’s children, Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own, equal in status to Joseph’s own brothers for the purpose of inheritance. Jacob also reminds Joseph that he was forced by circumstance to bury his beloved Rachel, Joseph’s own mother, on the road to Ephrath.
Points to Ponder
What do you think is the significance of Jacob giving his grandsons the status of sons for inheritance?
Jacob Blesses His Grandsons
Having claimed them as equal in status to his own sons, Jacob now notices his two grandsons standing with their father. Confirming their identities, he asks Joseph to bring them close that he may bless them. Jacob is overwhelmed with joy, as he had not thought he would ever see Joseph again, let alone his grandchildren.
Joseph positions his sons within his father’s reach, with the eldest, Manasseh, at Jacob’s right hand. Jacob, however, crosses his arms to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head. Joseph protests, but Jacob insists he knows what he is doing, and someday, Ephraim will outstrip Manasseh in greatness. Jacob blesses his grandsons in his own name and in the names of his fathers, saying one day the nation will bless their children in their names. He also tells Joseph that he is giving him an additional portion (shechem) over his brothers, one that he took with his own sword.
The Israel Bible asks why future generations would bless their children in the names of Ephraim and Manasseh (as is, indeed, the custom in many Jewish homes every Friday night). Ephraim and Manasseh were the first generation to be born in Egypt, yet they remained loyal to the traditions of their father despite the temptations of Egypt. Thus, they serve as a template for the survival of the Jewish people and their return to Israel in the future.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob has to ask who Manasseh and Ephraim are when he sees them?
Jacob Blesses His Sons
Jacob now sets out to bless his own sons. He wishes to tell them what will befall them in the End of Days.
To Reuben, Simeon and Levi, Jacob offers only chastisement for their earlier actions. Reuben, for interfering with Jacob’s marital bed (see Genesis 35:22), and Simeon and Levi for their rash attack on the people of Shechem (see Genesis 34:25-26). In fact, Jacob goes so far as to curse Simeon and Levi’s rage, scattering their future descendants among the other tribes.
With Judah, Jacob begins offering blessings in earnest. Jacob blesses him with lion’s strength, prosperity, and wise and powerful descendants. Zebulun he blesses with success on the seas. To Issachar he gives the strength to bear labor. He blesses Dan to be the avenger of his people. Gad he blesses with military might.He offers Asher richness of bread and delicacies. He notes Naphtali for his swiftness and wise sayings. To Joseph, he bequeaths blessings of the earth and the womb, greater than any Jacob himself received. Finally, Jacob likens Benjamin to a wolf, catching prey by morning and dividing spoils by evening.
Blessings complete, Jacob asks his sons again to bury him in Israel, in the Cave of Machpelah, with his wife, parents and grandparents. His final words imparted, Jacob passes.
The Israel Bible notes that the coastal inheritance bequeathed by Jacob to Zebulun enables the tribe later to enter into a special partnership with the tribe of Issachar; the former used their seafaring success to support the latter in Torah study, thus earning a share in their merit.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think Jacob chose to bless his sons by telling them “that which shall be befall you in the End of Days”?
Joseph weeps at Jacob’s passing, and orders his father’s body to be embalmed, a process which the Torah says takes forty days. He then asks Pharaoh’s leave to bury his father in Israel, as he had promised, and Pharaoh agrees.
Joseph’s brothers attended the burial, along with Pharaoh’s servants and the elders of Egypt. So impressive was the Egyptian entourage, in fact, that the local Canaanites renamed the site Avel Mitzrayim, which means ‘Egypt’s mourning’. Jacob was buried, as requested, in the Cave of Machpelah, accompanied by a great eulogy and a seven-day mourning period., a custom still practiced by Jews today.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the Egyptians attended Jacob’s funeral in Israel?
Joseph’s Final Days
After Jacob’s death, the brothers worry that Joseph will at long last be moved to avenge himself upon them. They therefore claim their father asked before he died that Joseph be merciful and forgive his brothers for what they did to him. They offer to serve him as slaves.
Joseph responds that although their initial intentions were to harm him, God always meant for events to turn out for the best. Joseph assures his brothers he has no intention of punishing them for their actions. Rather, he plans to sustain them and their families in Egypt.
Joseph lives to 110 years of age, seeing his grandsons have children. On his deathbed, he tells his brothers that God will surely remember them and bring their children out of Egypt and back to the Holy Land. At that time, he asks, those descendants should bring his bones with them out of Egypt to Israel.
The Israel Bible points out that the unique phrase Joseph uses, God shall “surely visit” you, is meant not only as a promise, but a sign. When Moses arrives on the scene a century or so later using the exact same phrase, the people know their redemption is imminent. While this sojourn in Egypt would only be one of many trials the Children of Israel would suffer, the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, repeated here by Joseph, means the Jewish people will ultimately be a great nation residing in the Land of Israel, where they belong.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think, 17 years after being reunited, the brothers still worry that Joseph will turn on them?