By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
This week’s parsha of Vayechi tells of the passing of Yaakov Avinu. The posuk states, “Vayikrivu yemei Yisroel lomus vayikra levno leYosef” (Bereishis 47:29). As Yaakov’s final moments of life approached, he called for his son, Yosef. He urged Yosef not to bury him in Mitzrayim, but in Eretz Yisroel: “Al na sikbereini beMitzrayim. Veshochavti im avosai…” He asks Yosef to swear that he will bury him amongst the avos, repeating the request by stating, “Veshochavti im avosai.”
The Torah generally refers to our forefather as Yaakov when denoting something that is in the present, while the name Yisroel connotes eternity. We must understand why in this instance the Torah refers to him as Yisroel while he was discussing matters relating to the present. Additionally, why did Yaakov feel it was necessary to repeat the request a second time? Why did he call only Yosef to his side to make these requests? Why didn’t he speak to the rest of his children and notify them of this plea?
Regarding this final question, Rashi explains that Yaakov made the request of Yosef because “hayah beyado la’asos,” he was the one who was able to carry it out. However, since the Torah refers to him as Yisroel, this meeting, the conversations, and the request are apparently matters of eternal value and not just temporal. Thus, these favors Yaakov asked of Yosef can be understood as matters of longstanding impact.
Perhaps we can understand the request being made of Yosef on a deeper level bearing in mind the exposition of the Baal Haturim, in Parshas Vayishlach when the posuk recounts that Yaakov said to Eisov, “Vayehi li shor vachamor” (Bereishis 32:6). He writes that Yaakov wasn’t only referring to his ownership of cows and donkeys, but more significantly, Yaakov was alluding to his two sons who had the ability to confront Eisov. Yosef who the posuk refers to as shor, is the alternate power to Eisov; Yissochor who is referred to as a chamor, has the power of Torah, because of his diligence in its study.
The Ramban at the beginning of the parsha (47:28) writes, “Yaakov’s descent to Mitzrayim is similar to our present exile in the hands of the chaya harviis, Romi harasha… The golus is extending for a long time, and unlike previous exiles, we do not know when it will end.”
From the words of the Ramban, we see that golus Mitzrayim contains lessons for us in golus Edom. Thus, even Yaakov’s discussions with Yosef pertaining to golus Mitzrayim have relevance to us in our day.
These pesukim tell of cosmic events. Yaakov was laying the groundwork for survival for his children, and their children, in golus. He was joining with Yosef to craft a code of endurance and triumph, igniting that lehavah, the flame that will ultimately consume Eisov.
Thus, we can understand the seemingly repetitious request, “Vayikra levno leYosef vayomer al na sikbereini beMitzrayim. Veshochavti im avosai…” Yaakov said, “Do not bury me in Mitzrayim. I wish to lay with my fathers.” Then he said, “Unesosani miMitzrayim ukevortani bekevurosom – Carry me from Mitzrayim and bury me in their burial place.”
We can explain that Yaakov was really making two distinct requests. Yisroel, the sheim hanetzach, the name that denotes eternity, was requesting, “Although I am now in Mitzrayim, the most tomei of all the lands, with wicked people and a wicked king, please do not bury me, Yisroel, here. Do not bury the netzach Yisroel, the traditions and beliefs that I received from my fathers, in this impure place. Remain separate from these profane people. Don’t permit yourself and your children to be influenced by them. Veshochavti im avosai. I wish to be like my fathers, Avrohom and Yitzchok, and be a link in a holy chain, with offspring who follow in my path.”
How will that be accomplished? Yaakov makes it clear: Not just by asking to be buried on holy soil, but by emphasizing, “Veshochavti im avosai. I want to rest with my fathers. I want to be connected to them and attached to their sacred mesorah.”
Yaakov tells Yosef, “You will able to do that if unesosani miMitzrayim.” While the simple translation of unesosani is to carry, the word also means to uplift and raise (like the meforshim explain on the posuk, “Naso es rosh Bnei Yisroel“).
Thus, Yaakov was telling Yosef, “In order to accomplish my wish to be an av, with sons and grandsons following in my path, you must raise me and what I stand for over the Mitzri culture. Raise me higher than Mitzrayim. You, Yosef, my son, have to remain elevated. Remain above your surroundings. Raise your children to live on a different plane. That’s how we will remain connected to the avos.”
When Yaakov said, “Unesosani miMitzrayim,” he was referring to the need to remain above the prevailing tumah of Mitzrayim and other goluyos of the future. Hence the use of the name Yisroel. Then, after he expressed his wish for the future, he made his request for the present: “Ukevartani bekevurosom.”
Yaakov pleaded with his son, “Al na sikbereini beMitzrayim, don’t bury me, my middah and my hard work, in Mitzrayim.”
Yaakov appealed to Yosef and not to the other brothers, because the matter he was attending to was not simply with respect to where to bury him, but how to stand up to Eisov and Edom throughout the ages. Yosef was the antithesis of Eisov. He was the one who had the ability to carry out Yaakov’s request of transmitting to future generations the secret to surviving and thriving in the hostile setting of golus.
Additionally, Yaakov perceived that Yosef, the kadosh, who perfected the middah of yesod through personal purity and strength, had mastered the ability to transcend the lures of Mitzrayim, the ervas ha’aretz, the capital of permissiveness and hedonism. That, combined with his inherent ability to battle the forces of Eisov, is why Yaakov requested this of Yosef and not his brothers.
The posuk continues: “Vayishova lo vayishtachu Yisroel al rosh hamittah – Yosef swore that he would do as his father asked. Yisroel bowed to him in appreciation towards the head of his bed.”
Once again, the posuk refers to Yaakov as Yisroel, because he wasn’t just bowing in appreciation of the fact that he would be buried near his father and grandfather in Eretz Yisroel. The eternal Yisroel of netzach was bowing to the eternal middah of Yosef. Yaakov was comfortable in the assurance that his avodah would continue.
Therefore the parsha continues with the narrative of the brachos that Yaakov gave to the sons of Yosef.
Yosef brought his two sons, the guarantors of the derech of the avos, the fusion of Bais Yaakov and Bais Yosef that can negate the koach of Eisov. Yaakov saw nitzchiyus. He saw these children of golus, born in impure Mitzrayim, but committed to derech Yisroel saba. He responded by giving them brachos, the blessings that have echoed ever since in every Jewish home.
After reporting on the entire conversation and incident, the Torah states that Yaakov said, “Vayevorech es Yosef vayomar haElokim asher hishalchu avosai lefonov Avrohom v’Yitzchok haElokim haroeh osi mei’odi ad hayom hazeh. Hamalach hagoel osi mikol ra yevoreich es haneorim veyikorei vohem shemi vesheim avosai Avrohom v’Yitzchok veyidgu larov bekerev ha’aretz” (48:15-16).
This brochah is the culmination of the parsha as we have understood it. When Yaakov saw Menashe and Efraim, the sons of Yosef, he perceived that his offspring would succeed in remaining loyal to his heritage in the exile. Thus, he said, “…haElokim asher hishalchu avosai lefonov Avrohom v’Yitzchok haElokim haroeh osi mei’odi ad hayom hazeh. That same derech that Avrohom, Yitzchok and I have walked on will continue throughout golus.
“Hamalach hagoel osi mikol ra yevoreich es haneorim.” Yaakov appreciated that davka Efraim and Menashe carried a strength that others did not have. The malach who protected Yaakov as he went into exile from his father’s home protected his grandchildren in their golus. Yaakov prayed that they would have the tenacity and determination in golus Mitzrayim and golus Romi to remain loyal to the precepts of Avrohom and Yitzchok: “veyikorei vohem shemi vesheim avosai Avrohom v’Yitzchok.”
The posuk in Chagai (2:9) relates the prophecy that the second Bais Hamikdosh would be more glorious than the first: “Gadol yihiyeh kevod habayis hazeh ha’acharon min harishon.” Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin asks that this prophecy is apparently refuted by the fact that many of the revealed nissim of the first Bais Hamikdosh, such as ruach hakodesh and the Heavenly fire, were absent in the second Bayis. How, then, can the novi say that the splendor of the second Bais Hamikdosh would exceed that of the first?
Rav Tzadok quotes the Sefer Heicholos, which explains that in the absence of those open miracles and being removed from the tangible presence of the Shechinah, more glory was present, because the people had to toil and work hard on their own to create the kedushah. The glory that arises from hard work and struggle is superior to that which is brought about as a gift from Heaven. People who work hard for their income appreciate what they have much more than those who live lives of dependency.
Yaakov perceived that a new era was beginning. He delighted in seeing that Efraim and Menashe, children of golus, were determined to live as their avos did. He determined that they would serve as the paradigm for generations to come, portraying that it is possible to rise to high and exalted levels even when trapped in a place one doesn’t want to be.
The mussar great, Rav Naftoli Amsterdam, once delivered a shmues in the Slabodka yeshiva on Taanis Esther. He surveyed the room filled with young people and began to weep. “I am so jealous of you,” he said. “You are all young bochurim, each with an active yeitzer hora. I am already an old man; my yeitzer hora has quieted down. I no longer have that same drive and push towards the pleasures of this world… I’m envious of you.”
Rav Naftoli lauded the opportunities of young people to bring about kavod Shomayim, possessed as they are with an energetic yeitzer hora. The glory those bochurim bring about is similar to that of the golus. It is the opportunity to rise with grandeur above all temptations, deterrents, difficulties and hindrances.
After learning that his beloved son, whom he had not seen in twenty-two years, was alive, Yaakov Avinu hurried down to Mitzrayim. On the way, he stopped in Be’er Sheva (46:1). The Medrash states that he stopped there in order to cut cedar trees for use in the construction of the Mishkon when his grandchildren would eventually be redeemed from golus Mitzrayim.
In the midst of the commotion and excitement, Yaakov Avinu remained focused on his mission of leading his progeny into golus. He maintained his equanimity, ensuring that his children would have the supplies they would need to exist in golus, and when they would be redeemed.
Perhaps there is a deeper significance here as well. Yaakov brought cedar trees, because, tall and proud, they are a symbol of steadfastness and strength. He was hinting to his children that if they would stand like arozim, unyielding and proud, they would survive the golus.
Golus is grueling, dangerous and long, but with the firmness of the erez, it is possible to emerge whole and pure. As we endure this period, it behooves us to remain resolute, resisting temptation to sin and sink. We must remain united in our drive and determination not to splinter and divide. Division has caused so many of our problems, historically and presently. The awful situation confronting the olam haTorah in Eretz Yisroel was brought on by divisions. It caused the olam haTorah to lose its voice in the current Knesset. Thankfully, that government has been brought down. Now, fresh splits have cast a pall on the possibility of repealing the destructive laws. Much pain and anguish has already been caused and the election season is barely underway.
Success, and sometimes our very existence, in golus is tenuous. We must count and appreciate our blessings while we have them.
A young Israeli kollel fellow who was traveling on a bus found himself sitting next to an elderly Russian man. The man seemed very simple. The fellow didn’t think much of him and remained focused on his Gemara as the Russian man looked out the window.
Finally, the yungerman felt it improper not to acknowledge the man’s presence, even if it took him away from his learning for a moment. Since it was before Yom Kippur, he wished the man a good year. The old man nodded, shared a toothless smile, and returned the greeting.
The yungerman imagined that, unlearned as he was, the Russian probably fasted on Yom Kippur, so he ventured to wish him an easy fast as well.
His seatmate beamed. “Yes, it will be easy here. Of course it will.”
With a faraway look, he shared his story.
“Ten li lehagid lecha et hasippur sheli,” he began, in heavily accented Hebrew.
The man told the yungerman that way back, decades ago, he was incarcerated in the Russian gulag. While there, he was forced to work long, hard hours, without a day off. However, he was determined that he would fast on Yom Kippur, no matter the difficulty. He searched desperately for an excuse to refrain from working on that day in order to be able to endure the difficult fast.
Finally, his friend suggested that he should fake a toothache and go to the infirmary. The authorities didn’t care much for the inmates, so they would immediately diagnose an infection and pull the tooth, the friend suggested. The pain would be intense, as they would perform the procedure without anesthetic, but it would at least earn him a day’s reprieve from work.
The Russian fellow completed his story: “I tried it and it worked. In fact, every year that I was in the work camp, I did the same thing. I would tell them that I had a toothache and they would pull out a tooth. I was there for six years, and six times I was able to fast on Yom Kippur. That’s why I say that here it is easy to fast.”
The man finished his story and smiled. Once again, the kollel fellow noticed his missing teeth, but this time, that toothless smile was more radiant and beautiful than any smile the yungerman had ever seen.
His was the smile of succeeding in golus.
When Moshiach comes, thousands of Jews like that Russian man will line up to greet him. Many will be bearing bruises, missing teeth, lost jobs, and the scars of daunting nisyonos and tragedies. They will stand there, the children of Efraim and Menashe, tall through it all.
Tears, scorn, obstacles. The lot of the Jew in golus. Yet eventually triumphant.
The Torah (49:1 and Rashi inter loc) relates that after he blessed his grandchildren, Yaakov gathered the family together and said that he would tell them what would happen at the End of Days. Yaakov was inspired to reveal the time of Acharis Hayomim, as he saw the unity, the shared mission, and the special kochos of his descendants. He saw that although they were born in the exile, Efraim and Menashe possessed the strengths of Yosef. He was comforted that his offspring would be able to withstand the golus and would merit redemption at the End of Days.
Alas, the very nature of golus is that there is a film of darkness and the end must remain hidden. We cannot fathom or understand the ways of Hashem, but through it all we maintain our emunah and bitachon that the end, the keitz that Yaakov visualized, is approaching.
Through smiles and tears, good years and bad, generous hosts and disdainful ones, we follow the example of Yaakov Avinu’s cedar trees, of Yosef’s strength, of the glory of Efraim and Menashe. We remain strong, honest, incorruptible, united, and committed to each other and our goals, knowing that if we continue to persevere, we will soon be in a better place.
May it happen speedily. Amein.