We arrive at the end of the Book of Genesis with the portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and spolier, everybody dies! We will go from here to 200 years into the future into the Book of Exodus next week as we continue on our sacred journey.
In chapter 49, Jacob writes probably the first recorded ethical will. He will describe each of his sons with a personal reading of their personalities and bless them accordingly. Eerily accurate, we will see them mature just as Jacob/Israel predicted, as we go through the rest of the Torah. They will have a definite impact as we move through all of biblical recorded history.
Something else that will be predictive. Understand that we are dealing with a dysfunctional family here, which culminates in some odd happenstances at Jacob’s funeral. I’ve seen strife within families before, but there are big consequences at stake here. The description of Jacob/Israel’s (remember, he had two names) funeral in chapter 50 acts almost like a “curtain call” for the Book of Genesis. All the players in the Joseph story arc appear. Joseph promised his father that he would bury him in the Cave of Machpelah (50:5) along with Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. After a 7-day mourning – the origin of Shiva in today’s Judaism – a grand funeral procession departed Egypt with chariots, a contingent of Egyptian soldiers as honor guard, and, of course, the brothers with their families. The Midrash relates that even Ishmaelites joined the cortege. Joseph leads the procession, riding in his chariot. But already there are murmurings of fear – not from the Egyptians or any of the other attendees, but from Joseph’s brothers! The brothers are concerned about what Joseph is going to do to them (50:15) now that Dad is gone, or, what are the brothers going to do to about Joseph’s two sons, Efraim and Menasseh, who have suddenly become tribes because of Jacob’s decree! Should they, perhaps, kill the whole bunch of them? (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah) But there stood Joseph, backed up by a small army of Egyptian soldiers, ostensibly a “guard of honor.” Not much else to be done except to voice their concerns to Joseph. Joseph once more, assured his brothers that it was the will of God that he come to Egypt, that he bears them no ill will, and that he has no intention of causing harm to them or discord with them. They all cry together, apparently reconciled.
In the midst of this, the Midrash records in the Talmud (Sota 13a) that Esau showed up with a contingent of soldiers, blocking their access to the Cave of Machpelah, asserting that there’s only one burial plot left in the Cave of Machpelah, which Esau claimed to now own! After four days of haggling, Esau demanded to see “the deed to the property”. Of course, the Children of Israel didn’t have it with them, so they sent their swiftest – Naftali (49:21) – back to Egypt to fetch it. The Talmud records that Chushim, the son of Dan, took action. He was hearing impaired, and didn’t understand what was going on. Distressed at seeing his grandfather’s body, lying in the elements in disgrace, he produced a club, and smashed Esau’s skull open. (Other Midrashim say he actually knocked Esau’s head clean off!) Problem solved, at least for now. (Our rabbinic midrashic creativity was meant to clarify the holdings of the burial plot to validate the Judaic lineage that we know of today)
And after a huge eulogy and quiet burial, everyone returns to Egypt. Joseph lives to a ripe old 110 years (50:26), extracting a promise from the brothers that, when he dies, to take his remains with them when it comes time to leave Egypt. This will occur during the Exodus (Exodus 13:19).
Quite a story. We’re not done yet, as you know. But for the moment, we need to ask what are we? Descendants of a single family? A Nation? A cohesive group of followers with a new philosophy and a claim to a piece of land few of them ever saw? What’s going on? Of course, the term “Judaism” is a relatively new designation. It wasn’t until the land of Israel became Judea – a name given to the Land by outsiders — were the people who lived there become known as “Jews”. A first crack at Monotheism, perhaps?
However, there something about us attracted God’s attention so that God chose US – this fractious, dysfunctional family — to be the ones to carry God’s message through the World! And what is it about this Land called at one point Canaan, and at another, Israel, that God wanted us to use as “headquarters” for the philosophy of what would be called Judaism?
WOW! What questions! But we keep going back to Rashi’s explanation of the book of Genesis – God is establishing the “chain of custody” for the Land of Israel. God is making a point of showing the World that we are not perfect – that we have our foibles and our problems just like everybody else in the World. But God is also showing the World that we “Hebrews” – Ivrim – who crossed over from paganism, represent something so powerful that it can change the Universe itself. We will see what that is, as we move forward in the Torah.
Chazak Chazak v’Nitchazek! Be Strong! Stay Strong! And may we be strengthened together! (The traditional greeting when finishing a Book of the Torah)