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| Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years (47:28).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 96:1) explains why the Sefer Torah does not leave the usual gap between the previous Parasha and this one. One of the reasons given is that Jacob wished to reveal what would happen to his descendants in the future, but he was prevented from doing so because ‘it was concealed from him’ – his prophetic vision was closed. This was not the first time that Jacob did not get Divine Communication of the Truth. Earlier in his life he did not know that Joseph had been sold, but he believed him to be dead. Even after they were re-united twenty-two years later, there is no evidence in the text (for example, in the rebukes he gave to his sons before his death) that Jacob knew that his sons had sold Joseph into slavery.
The text and the comment of the Midrash give rise to several questions. Firstly why did Jacob live in Egypt? Why did he not go back to the Holy Land with his family after the famine? Secondly, why did Jacob wish to reveal the distant future to his sons before his death? Thirdly, when Moses was in a similar position to Jacob – giving his last message to his people before his own death, he did reveal aspects of the distant future (as recorded in Parashiot Vayelech and Ha-azinu), before finally blessing them in Parashat Vezot Haberacha. Why was Jacob not given the chance to do the same?
One possible approach is to consider the opening words of the Parasha: vayechi yaakov be-eretz mitzrayim – Jacob lived in the land of Egypt. It does not say vayagar – he sojourned – temporarily, but vayechi – he lived. And, as the Akeidat Yitzchak points out, he was indeed able to live – he could finally enjoy the harmony and tranquility that he had longed for, having emerged safely from his troubles. He had escaped from Laban, made peace with Esau, regained Dinah, and became re-united with all his sons, including Joseph.
In addition the Torah commands the following in respect to Egypt: You must not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land (Deut. 23:8). The Midrash (Sifrei, 252) brings a reason: even though they threw your children in the Nile, they were your hosts at a time of distress (during the famine of Egypt). Indeed R. Elie Munk, in The Call of the Torah, cites historical descriptions of similar famines in Egypt, during which people practiced cannibalism and the route from Egypt to Syria resembled a vast field strewn with corpses.
Although Abarbanel holds that Jacob remained in Egypt after the famine because G-d commanded him to do so, there is no reference to this in the actual text. What seems clear in the text is that Joseph had served Pharaoh with the greatest degree of integrity since he had become Pharaoh’s viceroy. This was to the degree of Pharaoh actually having to press Joseph to take what he needed from Egypt’s resources, to bring Jacob to Egypt (45:19-20). Moreover, he had shown considerable expertise in redistributing Egypt’s wealth during the famine, so that the people would survive (47:13-26). In short, Joseph had made himself indispensable to Pharaoh. Leaving Egypt would have taken away from Pharaoh what he needed most – someone able, whom he could trust, who had ‘the spirit of G-d in him’. Had Joseph left Egypt after Jacob’s arrival, he would have let Pharaoh down. And if Jacob had been the cause of his departure, he would have brought all he stood for into disrepute – a chillul hashem. Had he not shown kindness to Joseph - and later to Jacob and his sons? Was not Egypt good enough for them?
Thus Jacob believed that it was best to live as a united family in a less than ideal location of Egypt. This point helps us to answer the two questions about revealing the future.
When Jacob blessed his sons, they were united. Jacob said, “Gather together” (49:1) Unity had been achieved. Therefore the foundations of the Israelite nation were in place. Previous quarrels – based, according to Chazal, on genuine misunderstandings, were safely in the past. This was not the time to reveal the consequences of the sins of the Israelites in the future.
Contrast this with the famous comment that Rashi brings from the Mechilta on the story of the Giving of the Torah. On the verse Israel camped opposite the Mountain, he points out that the word vayichan instead of the usually used vayachanu is to show us that on just that occasion the Israelites were as one united people. All the other numerous occasions where the Israelites encamped in the Wilderness were punctuated with grumbles and disputes – in other words disunity.
So it did not make sense for Jacob to reveal the future to his sons, as they were not living a way of life where it would have been relevant to do so. A glimpse of the future – the events proceeding the Final Redemption, would have brought distress to Jacob’s sons. One only brings dire warnings in dire situations. One only frightens a child about the long-term consequences of violence and theft, for example, if the child is likely to be, or has already been violent and dishonest. Thus the Israelites, on the other hand, were not in the state of the harmony of their forebears. In addition, their sins had incurred the wrath of the Almighty on several occasions. Moses knew his people well enough to say: For I know your rebelliousness and your stiff-necked character. Even in my lifetime you were rebellious against G-d: how much more (will you continue) after my death! (Deut. 31:27) It was the Israelites – not Jacob’s sons, which needed that look into the future.
The scepter shall not depart from Judah… (49:10).
Abarbanel raises the question as to why Judah, who was not a first born son, was selected for the Throne. He derives Judah’s unique qualities from the narrative. These include: humility and the ability to acknowledge where had gone wrong (as in the story of Judah and Tamar: 38:26), courage of conviction (as in the rescue of Joseph from the pit), and impressive power, held in reserve (he crouches, lies down, as a lion), and in control (who can awake him?). Other brothers either had other qualities, such as Zebulun and Naftali, or were passed over because previous conduct displayed unsuitable traits (Reuben, Shimon, and Levi).
Most commentaries do not treat the detailed text of the Blessings of Jacob as mere blessings. Rather, they are Jacob’s own statements of how he saw his own children at the end of his life, in terms of their own personal development and potential. Thus his rebuking of his first three sons does not imply a negative attitude, but rather the belief that harsh words would help to bring out the best of them in the future: they could take it! His words to other sons showed how he valued them as different personalities and that he wished to encourage each one to progress along the paths of his individual G-d given abilities. The actual berachot came only at the end: this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them, he blessed each according to his appropriate blessing (49:28).
Perhaps underlying this idea are the famous words of King Solomon: Educate a son according to his way (Proverbs 21:22).
This may help to explain the following famous statement: Our father Jacob did not die. The context for that is a later verse: When Jacob finished instructing his sons… he expired and he was gathered to his people (49:33). In contrast to Abraham and Isaac, it does not say that Jacob expired and died. Therefore the Talmud states that ‘Our father Jacob did not die’ (Taanit 5b).
From the above discussion, we see that Jacob’s traditions lived on in all his descendants. Unlike those of the other Patriarchs, all Jacob’s children were seen to have behaved as worthy individuals at the time of his death. Each, according to their unique gifts and strengths, continued the tradition of the Patriarchs - towards developing the Israelites into a ‘Kingdom of priests and a Holy Nation’ (Exodus 19:6). This contrasts with Ishmael’s and Esau’s descendants. The Talmud states that a person without children is ‘reckoned as dead’ (Nedarim 64b). Perhaps this idea could be extended to cover a father whose children turn out to be unworthy of carrying on his own good works…
The above may perhaps help to explain why the conventional gap between the Parashiot is not found at the beginning of this Parasha. Rashi and other Commentaries tend to interpret this ‘closure’ with a sad overtone – referring, for example, to the beginnings of the physical and spiritual exiles of the Jacob’s descendants in Egypt. However this lack of a gap may also be for happier reasons – namely that Jacob continues – he lives on spiritually, because his children maintain and develop his way of life.
In support R. Yohannan (Taanit 5b) cited Jeremiah’s equating Jacob with his descendants: Now, do not fear Jacob, My servant… and do not be dismayed, O Israel; for I will save you from afar… and Jacob shall settle in quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid (Jeremiah 44:27).
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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