Thursday, December 31, 2009

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va'ye'chi - B'resheet (Genesis) 47:28-50:26

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’ye’chi – B’resheet (Genesis) 47:28– 50:26

Last week we noted that much of what is described in our weekly Parashot (plural for “Parasha”) bears direct relationship to present-day situations and circumstances, and even to our own lives. Parashat Va’ye'chi, which centers around Ya'acov's prophetic benedictions over his sons and grandsons, is a good example of this, as these ‘benedictions’ are much more than mere ‘well wishing’ or ‘ hopes’ directed toward this progeny. The words pronounced by the Patriarch actually make up the Word of YHVH embossed upon the destiny and life of His people.

It starts with, "Jacob lived (va'ye’chi) in the land of Egypt seventeen years…when the time for Israel to die drew near, he called his son Joseph" (47: 28 emphasis added). Back in Parashat Va’yeshev we noted that the "record of the generations of Jacob" was directly linked to "Joseph, [who] when seventeen years of age was pasturing with his brothers…[and] Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons…" (37:2,3). These seemingly casual statements, tying Ya'acov's "record of generations" to Yoseph's life, as well as the reference to his attitude toward this son, are seen in a different light at the close of the cycle. From the present vantage point, these statements appear to be describing what now has become a cause, the effects of which are apparent in this Parasha. The symmetry of the "seventeen years," the first ones of Yoseph's life, and the last of Ya'acov's, along with the usage of the name "Israel" in both instances serves to enhance this impression of cause and effect, and of the cycle completed. As a matter of fact, the present situation, conveyed here, constitutes only the first part of the "effect," with the rest (as, for example, the lot that 'befell' the people of Yisrael in Egypt and their latter circumstances) still to follow for many generations to come.

The second part of verse 29 ("place your hand under my thigh…"), takes us all the way back to Avraham and his servant, who was charged by his master in the same manner (Gen. 24:2). The strength and power of life, represented by the thigh, finds expression through the hand of another, one who gives his promise to be faithful to his oath. Here, it is Yoseph who is promising his father to bury him with his ancestors in the land of Yisrael

Ya'acov's heart is thus set at rest, while in the next episode, sick and nearing death, he starts to confer his blessings. Yoseph, who is summoned to his bed, brings with him his two sons who end up being the first ones to receive the blessing. Hence, the sequel of blessings of the sons of Yisrael starts out with Ephraim, the youngest, and then on to Menashe. Yeshua's familiar words concerning “the last being first” and vice versa (e.g. Mt. 20:16), are certainly relevant in this picture! However, Ya'acov does not start blessing Yoseph's sons before he recounts, albeit in a somewhat modified version, what El Shaddai had said to him in Luz - Beit El (ref.35:10-12). The words he is about to utter are based on that auspicious promise of long ago. When blessing the boys, he includes the "fruitfulness" and the "numerousness," of the roots p.r.h - fruit - and r.b.h - much, great, plenty. "A nation - goy - and a company – kahal - of nations - goyim" in the original blessing, becomes "company - kahal again - of people” – “amim." We shall soon see how these two terms, "goy" and "am" are dispensed between the two grandsons. "Kings shall come forth from you" in the original is omitted entirely, and rightly so, because Yoseph's sons were not to be the recipients of the kingly portion. The final part of the original blessing had to do with the Land. Ya'acov qualifies the original word “land” with the words "an everlasting possession” – “achuzat olam." Achuza (“possession”), is from the root (alef, chet, zayin), meaning “to grasp, take hold, possess.” Being in exile, Ya'acov chooses words that would be powerfully imprinted upon the minds of his listeners. Without a repose, he adopts his two grandsons, in order to ensure that the promises just given will be fulfilled down through their successive generations. He then goes on to say to Yoseph, "but your offspring that have been born after them shall be yours" (48: 6). "Offspring" here is "moledet," of the root y.l.d (yod, lamed, dalet) “to give birth or beget.” "Moledet" is also "native land," a term used when Avraham was told to leave his "native country" (Gen. 12:1). In B’resheet 31:13, the angel of Elohim told Ya'acov to go back to his "moledet." Ya'acov had just talked about the "achuzat olam" which was promised to his progeny. The mention of "moledet" here may be one more reminder, given the circumstances, of what is no doubt an important issue which he wishes to inculcate into his posterity.

It was after the scene of blessings and promises granted to Ya'acov in Beit El-Luz that Rachel gave birth to Binyamin, in Ephrata, on the road to Beith Lechem, which is where she also died. Although at the moment Ya'acov is engaged in matters of great import, pertaining to the future of the Nation, he is clearly compelled to pause and allow the whole sad episode to engulf him all over again, and to make mention of it. Incidentally, the literal meaning of "Ephratah" is "toward Ephrat." "Ephrat" shares with “Ephraim” the same root of “fruitfulness.” According to Ya'acov's words here (ve. 7, and Micha 5:2), Ephrat and Beit Lechem are synonymous.

All during this time, while Ya'acov is adopting Yoseph's two sons, he is not aware of their presence in the room (being extremely nearsighted). Upon realizing that Ephraim and Menashe are present, Yisrael says to Yoseph, "I never expected to see your face, and behold, Elohim has let me see your seed as well" (ve. 11). "Expected" here is "pilalti." The root is p.l.l (pey, lamed, lamed), and its primal meaning is “to intervene, interpose, or arbitrate,” and by implication, “to judge,” thus giving rise to "hitpalel" which is “to pray,” and to "tfila" – “prayer.” The usage of it here as "expect" is the only one of its kind in the entire Tanach. Ya'acov had so completely given up any hope of seeing his son, that he may have not interceded or prayed on his behalf, since his only 'judgement' of the case was that his son had been lost forever

Ya'acov blesses the lads while crossing his arms over them. The essence of the blessing is put in a few words, "…may my name ("shem") and the name of my fathers… be named in them" (ve. 16). Yisrael is conferring upon his ‘adopted sons’ the blessings and promises given to Avraham, Yitzchak and to himself, which in this context are tantamount to the "name" he wishes to bestow upon them. Thus the blessings constitute an all-powerful 'stamp,' a "name" embossed, as it were, upon the lads and upon their prosterity. The Patriarch goes on to pronounce the following: "And may they grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth." The original wording for "grow into a multitude"- va'yidgu"- is a verb which appears nowhere else, and means "they will become fish," referring to that creature's rate of breeding. The use of this unusual verb is designed to call attention to the blessing, and to this specific detail. When Yoseph expresses disapproval of his father's 'birth order exchange,' the latter explains his action, telling his bewildered son that Menashe will be a "people" ("am"), in conjunction with the terminology referred to above; but that Ephraim, now making use of "goy," another of the above-mentioned terms, will become "the fullness of the gentiles" – or "m'lo ha'goyim" in Hebrew (ref. vs. 17-19 italics added).

The Brit Chadasha (New or Renewed Covenant) interprets for us the meaning of "becoming fish" far beyond a mere numerical property, or "the fullness of the Gentiles." "Now as Yeshua was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers… casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, 'follow me, and I will make you fishers of men'" (Mat. 4:19). Ephraim's descendants had to become ‘fish,’ so that when the fishermen were ready to cast their 'gospel nets' there would be a catch out there. When enough fish fill up the quota (according to the number determined by their Creator, ref. also Deut. 32:8) - in other words, when they become "the fullness of the Gentiles" - then "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:25).

The "one portion (over his brothers)," which Ya'acov grants Yoseph at the end of this scene (ve. 22), is signified by the word "sh'chem," meaning a “shoulder,” the specific reference being to the two ‘shoulders’ (mountains) on each side of the town by that name. Thus, Ephraim's lot includes the 'shoulder,' in the form of Grizim, the Mount of the Blessing, and Menahse's, the other 'shoulder,' Eival, the Mount of Curse.

It is now time for Ya'acov's twelve sons to receive a word from their father, or as put by Ya'acov, that which "will befall you in the latter days" (49:1). This is the first time the expression "latterend of - days" - "a'charit ha'yamim" - appears in the Bible. If compared to the usage of the same term in Isaiah 2:2, it may relate to a time in which Yisrael's calling as a Nation of Elohim's choosing will be fulfilled. [1] Let us pause to examine the root of “a’charit,” being (alef, chet, resh), from which are derived, “after, last, tomorrow, other, another, “ and also… “achar,” “acharey” or “achoranit” - meaning “behind” or “backwords.” Thus, when reference is made to the “acharit” (the “end”) there is also a “remez” (hint) to that which was “behind,” that which had already occurred “beforehand,” indicating a circulatory movement that links the past to the future – worlds without end(see also Yisha’ya’hu – Isaiah – 46: 9,10)! (In Parashat Lech Lecha – Beresheet 12-17, regarding the root k.d.m – east, antiquity and forward - we noticed a similar concept of that which is “ahead” being related to that which was.) Just as “kedem” also stands for “east,” there are several references to “acharon” (literally “last”) meaning “west” (the “last” – “acharon” – sea is the western sea in Yisrael, as compared to the eastern sea – the Dead Sea). In Eeyov (Job) 18:20 we read: “Those in the west – “achronim” last - are astonished at his day, as those in the east – “kadmonim” earliest ones - are frightened.” Thus, acharit ha’yamim” – end of days – conveys to us movement from the east toward the west (remember “acharon” also meaning “west”), just as was the direction of entering the tabernacle/temple all the way to the holy of holies which was situated in its western most section. This directional movement is confirmed by Matthew 24:27: "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (italics added).

The words given to the first three sons, predicting their dispersion among their brethren, have amazingly come to pass. Following on the heels of that is the word given toYehuda (Judah), which starts off with a word play on the meaning of his name, differing though, from the original meaning given to him by his mother (ref. Gen. 29:35). The root of the word and its meanings are not clear-cut. It appears to be yadah (of the root y.d.h., yod, dalet, hey), and is probably related to the word "yad" - “hand,” and thus means “to cast" (such as in casting a stone or a lot), as well as to “confess or to praise”, again connected to the imagery of raised hands. "Your brothers shall praise you - yo'du'cha" - (ve. 8), seems therefore to flow into the next expression, which is "your hand - yad'cha - shall be on the neck of your enemies" (who, many a time in the future will turn out to be the descendantsof his brothers!). And again, Yehuda's brothers, according to Ya'acov's prediction, are also destined to "bow down" before him. Yes, this son is destined for the "scepter" (“shevet”), but also for the judicial position, as we see by "me'chokek" (ve. 10), from “chok” – “law or decree,” the root being ch.k.k. (chet, kof, kof) and stems from a verb which means “to hew (ref. Is. 22:16) and engrave,” and by implication to “enact laws” and thus to “dispense justice.”

But the predictions concering Yehuda’s destiny do not stop here! The above promises are to hold true "until Shilo comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples" (ve. 10). The term Shilo has been interperted in many way, the most likely one is "to whom it belongs." Who truly is that one, and what is it that belongs to him? Ezekiel 21:27 helps us clarify what appears here as a mystery.[2] There we find the expression "until He comes to whom belongs ("asher lo") judgment [or justice]." If we were to read "shilo" as "sheh'lo," it would convey the same meaning as "asher lo" in the above, namely "to whom it belongs." In both cases what belongs to that one is something to do with judgment and justice, and of course, according to our present text, also the position of leadership.

The next part of the blessing (vs.11,12) with its repeated imagery of wine may be compared to Isaiah 63:1-3, where there are several references to wine, to its color and to the winepress. Once again, there is an allusion to an entity greater than Yehuda and his natural progeny.

The word given to Dan contains a reference to the meaning of his name, which is "judge." The meaning of Gad's name is changed by Ya'acov. Whereas his mother related the name to "luck" (29:11), here Ya'acov relates it to “raiding bands,” the verb being g.d.d (gimel, dalet, dalet), the original meaning of which is “cutting and making inroads.” [3]

Fruitfulness is alluded to in Yoseph's blessing, as he is twice named here "ben porat," literally "son of fruitfulness" (ve. 22). The word to Yoseph is replete with blessings of plenty, fruitfulness, might, prowess and honor; but also mentions the hatred which is directed toward him. Yoseph is to be a "nah'zir" (ve. 26) to his brothers. A "nah'zir" is one especially consecrated and dedicated to YHVH. This title can refer to a priest (Ex. 29:6), to anyone with a special calling, such as Samson (Jud. 13:5), and to one who takes upon himself a Nazarite vow (Lev. 6:21). The noun of the same root is “neh’zer,” and means a crown. Interestingly, “nah’zir” is mentioned in the same breath with the “top of Joseph’s head” (49:26).

If the word to Yehuda points so clearly to the Messiah, some of what is being said here to Yoseph, and of him, could also be interpreted as referring to a greater figure. It is no wonder then that in Jewish tradition, alongside with the victorious Messiah ben David (from Yehuda's house), there is also a Messiah ben Yoseph, who in the image of the 'literal' Yoseph and according to his blessing is also hated and experiences agony (ve. 23), yet is also powerful (ve. 24), fruitful and distinguished.

After Ya'acov's death, his sons express fear lest their brother Yoseph would take this opportunity to avenge himself of them. They therefore approach him with a statement, which their father had supposedly made before he died, asking Yoseph to forgive them. Not only is there no record of such a statement, there is also no record of Ya'acov ever finding out what his sons had committed. Upon hearing these words and the sentiment behind them, "Joseph wept" (50:17), bringing to mind Yeshua's reaction to the lack of faith and trust displayed by his closest friends (John 11:25).

With Parashat Va'ye’chi, ("and he lived"), the entire book of B’resheet comes to a close. "Va’ye'chi," "and he lived," is symbolic of Elohim’s sovereign intentions regarding the fulfillment of His Covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov. Thus, not only do they live on in their seed, in the next phase of their existence they also become numerous, multiplying in the land of their sojourning.


[1] Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit, Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson. Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.