Short comments on Parshat Vayigash and Parshat Vayechi
“And Pharaoh said to Yaakov, ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’ And Yaakov said to Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my sojournings are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and they have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers in the days of their sojournings.’ So Yaakov blessed Pharaoh and left Pharaoh’s presence.” — Bereishit 47:8-10
This is a terribly hard exchange to believe. Why would Yaakov Avinu—the father of the viceroy of Egypt—kvetch his wretchedness? Yaakov is known as the patriarch of tiferet (beauty), the synthesis of his father’s gevurah (self-containment) and his grandfather’s chesed (pious kindness). He had laboured 14 years for Rachel, the love of his heart. He was a man who dreamed of Heaven and conversed with it, and his son Yosef continued his dreamstate of prophecy in the same vein. Yaakov was the only patriarch who brought all his children into the birthright, both the children of his wives and the children of his concubines. We are all known as Bnei Yisrael—not Bnei Avraham, nor Bnei Yitzchak. Yaakov was a man who died with his family reconciled. So what is this heartrending vulnerability before a man who cannot hear a confession?
I believe this to be a prophecy—even more, a stern warning to the Pharaoh. Yaakov Avinu knows that Egypt will enslave his family. The Torah has already recorded that G-d told Avraham his offspring would be in the thrall of Egypt for 400 years (Bereishit 15:13). Through the kvetching juxtaposed with the blessing, Yaakov cryptically warns the leader of Egypt’s impending sins. As G-d said to Avraham: whoever blesses his nation will be blessed, and whoever curses her will be cursed. When Moshe Rabbeinu leaves the Pharaoh for the final time, the Pharaoh remembers to plead with Moshe: “Bless me!”. Yaakov’s blessing encapsulates the life of the Israelites in Egypt, as Pharaoh finally re-echoes it upon releasing the people. Like Yaakov, Moshe blesses the Pharaoh, but does not want to see him again.
“Yosef said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom G-d gave me here.’ So [Yaakov] said, ‘Now bring them near to me, so that I may bless them.’” — Bereishit 48:9
It’s beautiful to bless our daughters: May G-d make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. It’s a bit odd to bless our sons: May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe. Each daughter has it within her to become equal to our matriarchs. Why does our blessing for sons carry us two generations forward to the grandchildren of Yaakov?
Yaakov Avinu says to Yosef HaTzaddik: bring your sons to me and I will bless them. Perhaps we still today aspire to answer Yaakov’s command; we bring our sons directly before the patriarchs to receive their blessing, and in doing so, present our sons to the Almighty. By responding to Yaakov as his own son did, we situate them within the future of Israel’s nation.
Furthermore, Ephraim is the child who will carry the name Yisrael onto the Promised Land. The name Ephraim can be read as “the fruits of my life”, while the word Menashe—which contains the letters of the word neshama, heavenly soul—records that Yosef HaTzaddik has forgotten (nasheh) and forgiven the days of affliction the hands of his brothers. What is profound is that Menashe exemplifies his brotherly role by maintaining peace with Ephraim despite being passed over. He was willing to overlook small slights and to not fight against his destiny. The tremendous destruction of jealousy is quelled within the family of the patriarchs. By blessing the two children, Yaakov blesses Yosef and the harmony within his home. A harmonious life between siblings is a sacred dream of all parents.