Vayechi: The Simplest Message, the Greatest Blessing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

I don’t know about you, but for me, wearing just a sweatshirt outside when
thinking about
parshat Vayechi- at least in New England- is what you’d call cognitive
dissonance, of a
atmospheric sort, I guess. Usually, we’re reading about Yaakov’s final blessings
to his sons
when it’s cold and wintery, but today was warm- perhaps appropriate for thinking
about
our ancestors in Egypt.

When Yaakov grows old and sick, he trusts Yosef with burial instructions, but
then it
seems like Yosef goes back to work, and doesn’t notice that his father is
growing weaker
by the day. Here’s what the Torah tells us about Yosef going to see his dying
father:

“Now it came to pass after these incidents that it was told to Yosef, `Behold,
your father is
ill.’ So he took his two sons with him, Menashe and Efraim. And it was told to
Yaakov and
said, `Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you.’ And Israel summoned his
strength and sat
up on the bed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 48:1-2)

Reading these verses again this year, it occurred to me to ask a question that
I’ve never
considered: who was it who told Yosef that Yaakov was sick, and was that the
same person
who told Yaakov that Yosef was on his way? The commentators propose various
theories,
which include the possibility that it was one of Yosef’s sons, or one of his
brothers, or
perhaps Yaakov sent a messenger to his son (who lived far away in the capital,
and still
served as Prime Minister.)

At least two medieval commentators (Ibn Ezra and Rashbam – the latter was
Rashi’s
grandson) think that it’s the same person delivering messages in both
directions, which
makes sense to me: it feels to me like there is a caring person in the
background,
someone who knows that Yosef is busy but who also sees that Yaakov must see his
beloved son and bless him before he dies. One reason I think there is only one
unnamed
messenger is that there is a key word common to both verses: “hinei,” translated
here as
“behold.” It conveys a sense of immediacy, a sense that matters are pressing and
real:
“Yosef, your father is really sick, right now,” and “Yaakov, your son Yosef is
coming to see
you very soon.”

Perhaps this person was a member of the family, or perhaps this person was sent
from
Yaakov’s retinue- that’s not clear, but what is clear is that a few simple words
changed the
course of this family’s history, and our own. It’s easy to imagine that a busy
son- the
Prime Minister! – didn’t fully grasp how sick his father was; this unnamed
messenger
helped Yosef understand that nothing was as important as seeing his father, and
doing so
with alacrity. Rushing back to Goshen, ahead of Yosef, the messenger told Yaakov
that
Yosef was coming very soon- perhaps this hope, that he could see and bless his
son, is
what enabled Yaakov to “summon his strength” and sit up until Yosef arrived. (As
an
aside- working in a hospital, one often hears stories about dying people holding
on until
family arrives.)

Thus, not only was it an act of hesed for a son to see his dying father, but
giving his final
blessing to Yosef and Yosef’s sons, along with the other brothers, seems to help
Yaakov
die in peace. It was hesed to receive the blessing, and it was hesed to give it;
neither
would have been possible if this unnamed messenger had not been keenly aware of
the
emotional needs of Yosef and his father. This unnamed messenger saw deeply what
others
did not, and because of his powers of insight and his true caring, he changed
the course
of history, enabling the blessing of Yaakov to include Efraim and Menashe as
full tribes of
Israel. A few words of insight, spoken at just the right time, affected the
course of life and
death, and brought great blessing into the world- all we have to do is care
enough to
speak them.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- A slightly expanded and different version of this drasha will be given by
yours truly at
the Cambridge Minyan (at Congregation Eitz Chayim) this Shabbat morning- do drop
by!

PPS- Here’s the link to a summary of the parsha:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/
vayechi_summary.htm

and here’s the link to the text of the parsha, plus another great commentary
from one of
my former teachers:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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