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Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
Parshat Vayechi is the occasion for an apparently odd statement made by Rashi, Rashi quotes a Midrash. The sages are commenting on a moment on which Yaakov conferring with Yosef, bows towards the head of the bed, “vayishtachu Yisrael al rosh ha-mitah,” and the question that Midrash is dealing with is why was Yaakov bowing at this moment in time? “Al she-hatyitah mitato shlemah.” He was bowing because he saw that his legacy was complete. “V’lo hayah bah rasha,” that among all of his children none of them were evil-doers, all of them were good, fine Jews. “Sheharei Yosef melech hayah,” because Yosef was a great king and in wonderful position of power in Egypt. “V’od she-nishbah l-beyn ha-goyim,” and he was taken in by gentiles and he lived as a king in Egypt for many years, separate from his family “v’harei hu omed b’tzidko,” and here he was, still as righteous as he had once been.
What’s puzzling about this Midrash…when is all of this happening? When is Yaakov bowing and, according to the Midrash, realizing that Yosef was a great Tzadik? It’s happening at the very end of Yaakov’s life. When Yaakov is on his death bed conferring with Yosef. Let me ask you a question. If you were Yaakov, what would be the moment when you would have slapped your forehead and said, my goodness, and you would have bowed? “Yosef is a Tzadik after all!”
Would it have been now, on your death bed? It’s been seventeen years since he saw Yosef first in Egypt. He has had seventeen years to see that Yosef hasn’t been dissimilated, that Yosef was still a good Jew. Why then now does he say this? It should have happened a long time ago. What is this Midrash really trying to say? The Midrash, perhaps, is getting to a point which I mentioned to you when we were talking about Parshat Miketz. If you haven’t seen the video on Parshat Miketz, I recommend you go back and take a look.
But one of the points we made there is that Yosef may have been the victim of a terrible misunderstanding concerning his father’s role in the sale of Yosef. The truth, of course, was that his father had nothing to do with the sale of Yosef, was tricked in thinking that Yosef was killed but Yosef doesn’t know that. Yosef isn’t aware that the brothers presented a bloody coat to his father. All Yosef knows is that he was jumped, kidnapped and sold and that there was never any search party. All Yosef knows is that he came down to Egypt, was in prison alone, vulnerable and then another man took him in. Another man gave him beautiful clothes when once he had been stripped of clothes. Another man listened to his dreams when once his father been angry about his dreams. Another man gave him a wife and another man gave him a new name and that man was Pharaoh. And once you understand that, this tension, perhaps, on Yosef’s mind between Pharaoh, who positions himself as a father figure for Yosef, and Yaakov himself, you begin to understand the story.
Because it’s all very nice to look up to Pharaoh and have this great relationship with Pharaoh if you are Yosef, and it’s all very nice to reconcile with your father and to kiss him, to hug him, and to be very happy that you’re back with your father after all of these years. But what happens later on when the interests of these two fathers—the real father and then the one who adopted you—collide…and that’s what happened seventeen years later in Parshat Vayechi.
Yaakov realizes that he is close to death. He calls Yosef, he says, please, I have a request for you. Don’t bury me in Egypt. I want to be buried with my fathers. I want to be buried in Canaan. Yosef’s response, “anochi e’eseh k’dvarecha,” I will do as you ask. Now if you were Yaakov, what would you say next? If I was Yaakov, I would say thank you very much. That’s not what Yaakov says. Yaakov says swear to me that you will do it.
What do you mean ‘swear to me that you will do it?’ Do you doubt Yosef? Why ‘swear to me that you will do it’? And Yosef swore to him. Then “vayishtachu Yisrael al rosh ha-mitah.” That’s when Yaakov bowed—whenYosef swore. Why did he make him swear? Because this was the moment when Pharaoh’s interests and Yaakov’s interests diverged and there’s no way to make them both happy anymore.
How would Pharaoh feel about a state funeral for Egyptian royalty in the land of Canaan? Who was Yaakov? Yaakov was the father of the man who had saved the entire world, the father of the royal hero, Yosef. He was Egyptian royalty when he dies. Yaakov is embalmed like Egyptian royalty. His funeral is a state funeral. When, ultimately, everyone goes out to Canaan, the Torah goes out of its way to say that the neighboring nations looked and they said “evel kaved zeh l’Mitzraim,” this is a huge entourage of mourning from Mitzraim. It was the strangest thing in the world, an Egyptian state funeral held outside of Egypt.
Imagine Queen Elizabeth dies and she is buried in Madagascar. That doesn’t look very good for England. What is Pharaoh going to think of this request? Yosef says I will do it for you. Yaakov says, swear that you will do it. Yosef says I swear that I will do it. Then Yaakov knows he is a Tzadik. You know who your real father is and your allegiance lies with him. And this, perhaps, explains another strange Midrash.
The text tells us that before Yaakov was buried, he was eulogized in a place with a strange name, it was called “Goren Ha-Atad,” which literally means a place that was surrounded by thorns. And the Midrash explains the meaning of the place and says a strange thing. Rashi quotes the Midrash, “ba’u kol malchei kna’an u-nasi’ei Yishmael,” that all the kings of Canaan and the Princes of Ishmael came to wage war against the nascent Jewish people that were in the funeral procession for Yaakov. “V’keivan she-ra’u kitro shel Yosef talui b’arono shel Yaakov,” but when they saw the crown of Yosef hanging on the coffin of Yaakov, “amdu kulan,” they put down their weapons, “v’talu bo kitreihem,” and they took off their crowns and they put their crowns on the coffin as well, “v’hikifuhu ktarim,” it was a coffin encircled with crowns and it was if the crowns made a circle of thorns around the coffin.
What do the Rabbis mean? I want to suggest a theory. Look who the Rabbis say were attacking the children of Yaakov: the kings of Canaan, Princes of Ishmael. What is the common denominator between Canaan and Ishmael? Dispossessed children. Who was Canaan? Canaan was the cursed son of Noach, thrown out of the family. Who was Ishmael? The son of Avraham, thrown out of the family. All of these dispossessed children. Children thrown out of Abraham’s house, thrown out of Noach’s house, come now to attack the children that these fathers loved.
The children of Shem, loved by Noach. The children of Yitzhak, loved by Avraham. They are coming to attack the funeral precession of these loved children. What makes them stop the attack? When they see the crown of Yosef hanging over the coffin of Yaakov because Yosef was a child who thought himself dispossessed too. But Yosef didn’t turn around to attack. He clawed his way back in to the family and when the fateful moment came for him to choose—are you a son of wealthy, powerful Pharaoh or are you a son of Yaakov?—he said my family is always my family and he buried Yaakov in Canaan and put his crown, as it were, on that coffin and that’s what made them stop the attack. Only Yosef holds the moral force to take the thrust out of the attack of dispossessed children. Yosef saves us because he is the child who through his own decisions, made it back.
Hi this is Rabbi David Fohrman. Congratulations on finishing the first book of Torah, Sefer B’Reshit. Next week of course we will be moving on to Shemot, Exodus. Can’t wait to explore that with you. I want to let you know I always love hearing your feedback. There’s a little space for comments underneath these videos. Please take advantage of that. Leave comments that I or your fellow students can take a look at. Look forward to seeing you all in Sefer Shemot.
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