Vayechi (“Jacob Lived”) – titled euphemistically after Jacob’s death — recounts the final days of the last of the Patriarchs, and attempts to round out the story of a family as it transforms into nationhood. But if we seek a happy resolution to the tortured lives of our forefathers and the conflicts that forged our nation, we may be disappointed. So many questions are left open, so many emotions unresolved: In particular, the relationship between Jacob and Joseph. Pesikta Rabbati, a wonderful 9th century homiletical midrash, seizes on this thread to deepen our understanding of the Jewish project.
Previous Torah readings have amply demonstrated the special bond between the patriarch and the child he longed for most — only Rachel’s firstborn could have drawn Jacob to leave the Promised Land and descend into Egypt. Continually referring to Joseph as his son, and to Rachel as his wife, Jacob, for most of his life, considered these two his only authentic family.
According to the Zohar, during Jacob’s first encounter with his beloved, he was riveted by her beauty insofar as it reflected the supernal pattern that would be mirrored in Israel’s future progeny. While each tribe inherited a specific quality of the patriarch, Joseph blended them all, in his facial features as in his character. Therefore, it was to Joseph that the coat of many colors was given. This may explain why, in last week’s parsha, Jacob’s most intense love is expressed not to Rachel, during his first encounter with her, but to their long-lost son, when Jacob and Joseph are reunited. There was no higher joy in Jacob’s life than to know that his life’s mission, fathering the Twelve Tribes, had been vindicated. “Finally I can die, now that I have seen your face and know that you are still alive!”
Meanwhile, how did Joseph feel? Forgetting protocol, the Egyptian viceroy readied his chariot himself and drove furiously to present himself to his aging father. As the two fell into each other’s arms, the Hebrew modulates to the singular — one has an uncharacteristic breakdown of uncontrollable emotion, while the other retains his composure, leaving us to sort out who wept inordinately and who loved the most.
The Malbim says that Jacob was so overwhelmed with joy that he forgot its very human cause (Joseph), opting for union with the Highest. That is why he began to recite the prayer that every Jew says before dying: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” There was nothing more to look for in this life. At his first encounter with Rachel, Jacob broke down in tears because he saw that she would die young and they would be buried apart. But with the restoration of her long-lost son, the meaning of his life returned and there was no reason for tears. Joseph, on the other hand, needed an outlet for all he had suffered.
While some midrashim weave fantastical tales of royal feasts in which Joseph rejoices with his family and the Egyptian aristocracy, according to this week’s reading he and his father see each other on only two other occasions, and for purely pragmatic though spiritual reasons. When Jacob realizes his days are numbered, he summons Joseph and implores: “Do not bury me in Egypt.” So important is the Land of Israel to Jacob that he makes Joseph swear to transport his body back to Canaan and lay him to rest with his ancestors. Finally, when Joseph is told that his father is actually dying, he thinks of his future, takes his two sons, and hurries to Goshen, to obtain the birthright for them with Jacob’s blessing.
Pesikta Rabbati asks why Joseph, reunited with his father after 22 years, did not resume their intimate relationship—and the vital Torah education—from where it had been interrupted. Pesikta Rabbati answers: Joseph dreaded being alone with his father. He kept his distance lest Jacob ask, “What did your brothers do to you?” He would be forced to talk.
What, in fact, had the brothers done? They stripped him of his coat of many colors. At the last moment, Judah stopped his brothers from killing Joseph outright. If Judah’s objective was to rid himself of his rival, a foolproof plan was selling him as a slave. What resistance could a young man as good-looking as Joseph put up as a slave among the Egyptians, renowned for their immorality? The boy managed to remain intact and withstand temptation; his suffering was emotional. He had been displaced. As his aging father acknowledges on his deathbed, in his blessing to Judah: “Mi-teref b’ni,” (“From the rending of my son [Joseph], you [Judah] have risen [to kingship].” For Joseph, being viceroy of Egypt was cold comfort.
Pesikta Rabbati describes graphically what might have ensued had Joseph, as in days gone by, passed on evil reports of the brothers. Inevitably, Jacob, overcome with anguish at Joseph’s ordeal, would have lashed out against the tribes and cursed them. Because of his righteous stature, the curse would have taken effect. Not only the entire Jewish project, but the whole world — created for brotherhood between diverse peoples — would be destroyed. And for all of this, Joseph would be responsible because of a need to unburden himself of his trauma. Although he would have loved nothing more than to pick up his conversations with his father from where they left off, he came together with him only when he had to. Sometimes, refraining from speaking one’s personal truth is necessary for the larger good and for sustaining the world.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” recently released on Amazon Kindle.