By: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
State Rabbi for Schleswig-Holstein in Berlin, Germany
Just like an earlier Sidra,
“Chayyei Sarah”, “the Life of Sarah”, which actually starts
with her death – so here “Vayechi” – “and he Lived” –
incorporates in fact two deathbed scenes – those of Jacob the Patriarch and his
son Joseph who – for some reason – is not one of the Patriarchs. But why?
Is Joseph the first ‘Diaspora Jew’? This
might seem an appropriate thought for a commentary on the Torah “from
around the world”. There are many strange ideas floating in this Sidra,
though we should beware of trying to extrapolate too much or drawing too close
Whether or not he left the Land of Israel
voluntarily (and we know he did not – that in this respect he is the exception
to all those who were driven from their homelands and came to settle in Israel)
he is a son of Jacob who feels that he has little in common with the other
‘B’nei Ya’akov’ or ‘B’nei Yisrael’ who are ‘back there’, those troublemakers
who believe in violence, in massacring the inhabitants of Shechem, who are more
concerned with their own internal family politics and power struggles than in
accepting Joseph as a true brother and the privileged one of their father. In
many respects he is as much a Son of Rachel as a Son of Jacob. And the loss of
his mother left the only link with her through his younger and only full-brother,
So – despite starting from the bottom, a
place from where there is literally nowhere else to go but upwards, and thanks
to a large amount of ‘luck’ (may one call it that? Or was it truly God’s Plan
from the outset, when the Promise was made to Abraham in Gen. 15:13 that his
descendants would spend 400 years in exile and servitude, that Joseph should be
in an Egyptian jail?) in Chap. 41 he builds up a career, marries a local woman,
brings up his family, and deliberately chooses names for his children that
somehow fit the situation (“I have forgotten my roots”, “I am
happy here”). We describe a period in which it is too early to speak of
‘Judaism’ in any sense that we can describe it nowadays – so it is irrelevant
that his wife Asenat was ‘not Jewish’ and that he ‘did not go to synagogue’; At
this period we speak of an ethnic link, a tribal identity is what matters, and
Joseph has become to all intents and purposes an Egyptian.
Until… His past catches up with him. Until
his half-brothers appear before him, supplicating, seeking the means to
survive; until his brother Benjamin stands before him, now fully grown and
unaware of his symbolic importance; until his aged father and the whole tribe
come down to join him in a land which he has, himself, enslaved and
dispossessed – but as a bureaucrat, not as a military man.
And this means that his father will once
again include him in his farewell blessings, and that he himself will have to
include his half-brothers in his own farewell blessing. He will have to take
upon himself the responsibility of arranging his father’s funeral according to
his wishes, and he will have to deliver his own instructions – instructions
which, initially, no-one can truly fulfil. His mummified corpse will have to
rest in Egypt until the end of the 400 years (of which he knows nothing), and
then will be taken for forty more years through the desert, and only at the end
of the Book of Joshua (24:32) will Joseph finally be laid to rest – not next to
his father, but at least in a plot of land his father had originally purchased
in Genesis 33:18, when Rachel still lived and the future looked optimistic. So
a circle closes at last.
Not all of us have the opportunity to sit
with our parents and discuss their funeral wishes; and not all of us will have
the opportunity to sit with our children and discuss our own. But there are so
many questions which could be addressed. Is there a special place? Does it
matter? Do we wish to lie next to specific individuals, family members? Do we
have a ‘homeland’? One could even ask, how would or should a Jew relate to his
former homeland, if representatives come to him and apologise? Can he settle
once again in Spain, Poland, Germany? Or arrange a funeral there?
Can the Past be laid aside? Does the need for
Continuity of necessity mean keeping the Past ever Present? How do we fit into
the chain of tradition – even if we live outside the Land, even if we have
settled and established families and acquired jobs and lifestyles so different
to those of our nomadic ancestors? What can we do to ensure that the next
generation will trake these things, and their own responsibilities, seriously?
How many years forwards can we dare look, and – the big unspoken Question –
What is God’s Plan? For us and for future generations?
“And Jacob lived”. Yes, but then he
died. And now it is our time. For how long? And what comes then?
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.