By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Vayechi marks the end of Sefer Bereishis and the profound lessons of maaseh avos siman labonim that fill its narratives. The parsha also marks the passing of Yaakov Avinu and contains his words of parting to Yosef, Menashe, Efraim and the rest of the shevatim.
The posuk tells us that when Yosef heard that his father was ill, he took his two sons, Menashe and Efraim, and went to visit him. Yaakov tells Yosef that his two sons will be “like Reuvein and Shimon to me” (48:5). He then reminds Yosef that when his beloved mother, Rochel, passed away, Yaakov buried her at the side of the road to Efras.
Returning to the subject of Yosef’s sons, he blesses them that his name and the name of his fathers, Avrohom and Yitzchok, should be attached to theirs.
Yaakov places his right hand on Efraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Menashe, the older one. Yosef is upset by this reversal. Shouldn’t Menashe’s seniority as the bechor be acknowledged by Yaakov’s right hand instead of the left? Yaakov tells him that both sons will attain greatness, but the younger one will be greater and his children’s fame will spread among the nations.
Rashi explains that this refers to Yehoshua, a descendant of Efraim, who would lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisroel. His fame would spread amongst the nations of the world when he causes the sun to stop in Givon – “shemesh b’Givon dam.”
Finally, Yaakov blesses them with the immortal words, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel leimor, yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim u’ch’Menashe.”
There are some things that require understanding. Why did Yaakov elevate the status of Efraim and Menashe to that of the shevatim? Why is the mention of Rochel Imeinu’s burial place interjected here, in the midst of the narrative about the blessings that Yaakov gave to Yosef’s sons? What is the connection of the burial place of Rochel to the status of Efraim and Menashe?
Why, in fact, do we bless our children that they should be like Efraim and Menashe and not, for example, like Yehudah?
And why is the fact that Yehoshua led Bnei Yisroel into Eretz Yisroel reason enough to give precedence to Efraim over Menashe?
Lastly, why does the Torah only record Yosef’s bringing of his children to the ailing Yaakov? Can it be that the other brothers knew of Yaakov’s condition and didn’t come to be mevaker choleh?
A hint to the answer to these questions may be found in the first Rashi of the parsha. Parshas Vayechi is unique in that it is setumah, meaning that there is no extra space between it and the preceding parsha, unlike the general rule that a parsha begins on a new line or that it is separated from the previous one by a space of nine letters. In explaining why the parsha is a setumah, Rashi notes that with the passing of Yaakov Avinu, the shibud intensified. In other words, the golus of Mitzrayim – particularly the pain and the challenge of being a lonely minority in a hostile environment – first began to manifest at this point.
When Yaakov realized that his end was near, he decided that it was time to prepare his children and their children and descendants for life in exile.
It may very well be that not only Yosef, but all the shevatim, came to visit him and to receive his blessings. The Torah only recounts the encounter with Yosef and his sons who had been born in Mitzrayim, because that was the only visit that carried a vital lesson for posterity.
Yosef was the son who had arrived first in golus and had paved the way for the Bnei Yisroel there. Though Yosef lived in golus all alone, he clung to the faith of his father and lived an exemplary life, raising worthy, upright children. Yaakov singled them out for praise and showcased them as an example of how Jews all through the generations can survive in golus.
Though they had no community of fellow observant Jews, they did not succumb to the ever-present temptations surrounding them in decadent Mitzrayim. Yaakov was showing the brothers and Jews for all time that even in exile, they can still be good Jews who are loyal to their heritage, while also conducting themselves as successful citizens of their host country.
Yaakov turned to Menashe and Efraim and said, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel,” because though they were born in the exile and lived in Egypt prior to the arrival of Yaakov and his sons, they still were as holy and pure as their cousins who had grown up under the direct influence of Yaakov.
Yaakov said that for all time, wherever they find themselves, Jews should study the example of these two scions of greatness and point to them as examples of how they want their own children to develop, despite the tumah and moral bankruptcy around them.
Yosef Hatzaddik, indeed, showed the way for Bnei Yisroel to live in golus, but he also helped prepare them for the geulah, as did his father, Yaakov. Perhaps this is hinted to by Yosef’s words in Parshas Vayigash (45:5), when he revealed himself to his brothers. He told them not to be upset or angry that they sold him into bondage, “ki lemichyah shelochani Elokim lifneichem – for Hashem sent me before you so that you may live.”
Obviously, it was preordained that there be a hunger and that the Jews would go down to exile in Mitzrayim, as Hashem told Avrohom Avinu at the Bris Bein Habesorim (Bereishis 15:13).
Yosef was telling his brothers that since they had to be in golus, it was providential that he was the first to be exiled from Eretz Yisroel, because he was able to demonstrate for those who would follow him that it was possible to live an upright life even in a pagan, immoral environment. Thus, the term “lemichyah” can be understood allegorically to mean “to show you the way to live here in the exile.”
Yosef had a history of knowing how to live in golus and how to battle the forces of evil even before he went down to Mitzrayim. The posuk (Bereishis 30:25) states that as soon as Yosef was born, Yaakov told Lavan that it was time for him go back home. Rashi explains that this was because Yosef had the power to devour Eisav. With his birth, Yaakov knew that he could leave the golus of Lavan, vanquish Eisav, and return to the Promised Land.
Yosef not only shows the way in golus, he also paves the way for geulah. Once Yosef is on the scene, Yaakov is confident that he can leave golus behind him and make it to Eretz Yisroel. That ability of Yosef to give strength and succor in golus and also to help bring about geulah was inherited from his mother, Rochel.
In connection with the posuk in which Yaakov describes the passing of Rochel and her burial at the side of the road to Efras, Rashi quotes the immortal words of Yirmiyahu Hanovi which tell us that when the Jews went into golus at the time of the churban, Rochel stood on her grave on the road they were traveling and cried out to Hashem to have mercy on the Bnei Yisroel. Rochel was the one who pleaded with G-d to be merciful with the Jews in golus and make sure they don’t lose their way.
This trait of being mindful of the pitfalls of golus and seeking to help strengthen the Jews who live there was passed on to her son, Yosef.
It is interesting to note that the second half of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy points to the other key characteristic of Yosef, and that is to help bring about the geulah. For Hashem answers Rochel, “Mini koleich mibechi…ki yeish sochor lifuloseich veshovu vonim ligvulom.” As a reward for your efforts, your children will return home.
With this, we can understand why Yaakov interjects with the tale of Rochel’s kevurah while he is blessing Yosef and his children. For Yaakov was preparing Klal Yisroel for golus and geulah and telling Yosef that his mother’s kochos hanefesh were passed on to his children. And this is the reason that he placed Efraim before Menashe, because Yehoshua, who led the Jews into Eretz Yisroel, was a descendant of Efraim. He was therefore the one who showed the Bnei Yisroel the path to geulah.
Yosef and his children not only demonstrate the way to live and survive in golus, they also lead us to the redemption. To emphasize this point, Yaakov promoted Efraim, grandfather of Yehoshua.
Yosef not only enabled Yaakov to triumph over Eisav, and not only showed how to have a kiyum in golus Mitzrayim and every golus. He also helps lead the Jewish people to geulah, not only in Yaakov’s day by enabling him to return to Eretz Yisroel, but also at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim.
There is an allusion to this spiritual force of Yosef in Moshe Rabbeinu‘s quest to find the atzmos Yosef, as the posuk (Shemos 13:19) recounts, “Ki hashbeiah hishbiah es bnei Yisroel leimor, pakod yifkod Elokim es’chem, veha’alisem es atzmosai mizeh itchem.”
Yosef foretold that eventually Hashem would redeem the Jewish people, and when that time comes, they should remove his remains from Mitzrayim. Yosef has a pivotal role to play in both golus and geulah. That is why he was the first to go into golus and why his remains were removed only after all the Jews were ready to depart.
As we go through our lives in the wonderful, benign golus of America, we would do ourselves a great service to bear in mind that as benevolent as this golus is, it is still golus. We should also remember that Hashem hears our tefillos and, in His great mercy, will send us the redeemer who will liberate us from exile.
That long-awaited arrival will be heralded by the appearance of Moshiach ben Yosef, because, as we have learned from a deeper look into this week’s parsha, Yosef shows the way to geulah. The messianic age and the ultimate geulah will also be ushered in by Yosef and his progeny.
May we merit the Heavenly response to Rochel’s tears and the arrival of Moshiach ben Yosef speedily, in our day. Amein.