Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayechi

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayechi 5760/1999

Jacob's Blessings to his Sons -- Between Past and Future

Roni Meron

Department of Philosophy

Parshat VaYechi begins with a universal human situation: the father of the family calling from his sick-bed to his beloved son and making one last request of him before he dies, to be buried with his ancestors in the land of Canaan. From this point the course of events develops in two different directions: past and future. On the one hand, Jacob sees fit in this situation to recall certain events and subjects from the past. Thus, in requesting to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, Jacob mentions Ephron the Hittite who sold the burial cave to Abraham; the burial of the other patriarchs there (vv. 30-32), and Rachel's death along the way (v. 7), all ostensibly unimportant details and unrelated to the current point in time in the narrative of this week's reading. On the other hand, on this occasion Jacob also reminds his son of the promise concerning the people and the land in the future (v. 4), a promise which becomes more concrete in the blessings given his sons. The connection drawn in this week's reading between Jacob's physical condition on the eve of his death and the events of the past in the lives of the patriarchs on the one hand, and the future destiny of those who will comprise the nation of Israel on the other, is obvious. This connection removes Jacob's death from the private, personal realm and gives it importance as a founding event in the life of the Jewish people.

During the past twenty years we have witnessed intensive interest in the fields of philosophy and research into the question of our relationship with the past and the ways in which our historical memory is shaped as part of our broader concern with the subject of our identity. Some of the work done in this area lays emphasis on the change of generations as a central factor in shaping the culture of remembrance, its codification and transmission from one generation to the next.[1] The approaching demise of the parents' generation, and even more so the awareness of death approaching and being inevitable -- "the time approached for Israel to die" (47:29)-- makes parents and children alike confront the question of what should be remembered and what forgotten -- a fundamental question in establishing the consciousness and identity of the next generation.

Jacob, who first addresses Joseph and then the rest of his sons, senses a special responsibility in this situation. First and foremost, he bears his memory of the Divine revelation -- "El Shaddai appeared to me" -- and he feels an obligation to pass this on to his sons, who did not experience it themselves. Moreover, this Divine revelation happened in "Luz in the land of Canaan" and concerned the future of Jacob's progeny in the same land -- "I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession" (Gen. 48:3-4). On his deathbed in a foreign land, assuming that his offspring would continue to be in that land in the foreseeable future, it becomes most essential in Jacob's eyes to recall the land of Canaan. The burial places which he mentions in his words to Joseph -- the cave of Machpelah and Rachel's tomb -- in this context can be understood as a "place of remembrance,"[2] as the French scholar Pierre Nora calls it. Their role is to preserve the memory of the patriarchs and the land in the hearts of the coming generation, whose daily lives are likely to be far away.

Jacob, who as the head of the family appears to be aware of the significance his death will have in relationship to future generations, explicitly seeks to make this an important moment with regard to their future: "Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come" (Gen. 49:1). Like this event, so too, the blessings are not a private matter; they indicate the future directions that will be taken by the sons. The characters of the different sons, as they emerge from the blessings given them, represent the prototypes which taken together stand for the future collective body of the Jewish people. The blessing concludes with the Torah presenting Jacob's twelve sons as tribes: "All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number" (v. 28). It is interesting that the Torah presents the sons of Israel as tribes at this early stage, at the end of Genesis, before they become the "Israelite people" (Ex. 1:9), as Pharaoh calls them at the beginning of Exodus. Tribal existence, with each tribe having its own particular character, is a precondition for the emergence of the people; without complementary variety there is no room for forging a single national identity.

As in the beginning of the reading, when Jacob calls Joseph and asks him to bury him in the land of Canaan, so too when he gives his blessings sometimes Jacob couples an account of events of the past with statements about the fate or destiny of the tribe in the future. This is especially noticeable with regard to Jacob's older children. Reuben, Jacob's eldest, receives advice from his father -- "Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer" (Gen. 49:4) -- on the basis of his past experience -- "For when you mounted your father's bed,..." (ibid.) Simeon and Levi are sternly rebuked for the Dinah affair, and their fate is to be scattered among the tribes of Israel and not have an inheritance of their own. This fate is presented as a result of their deeds. As for Judah, Scripture hints about his past in the words "From the prey of my son you rose up" (v. 9), which according to Rashi relates to the fact that he saved Joseph from his brothers and had him sold to the Ishmaelites instead of being killed.[3] Then Jacob addresses his vision of Judah's future as one of kingship and dominion over the tribes of Israel, saying, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah," etc. (v. 10).

An interesting theory that has been advanced by contemporary scholars of memory holds that memory cannot be significant in forming identity as long as it is comprised solely of stories about events from the past. The narrative of the past is a precondition for formulating significant remembrance, but it must be accompanied by general normative consequences or at least by a concrete command that hints at the future. In this sense Jacob's blessings to his sons, which comprise the first biblical text which establishes the identities of the tribes and characterizes them, are a clear combination of narrative and normative elements, of story about the past and command concerning the future. This integration of events of the past with a command that necessarily emerges from it, as a formulation underlying memory, becomes more central in later books of the Torah, and the exodus from Egypt becomes the fundamental event in establishing the people of Israel.

[1] Cf., for example, Jan Assmann, Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis, Munich, 1992, p. 33.

[2] Pierre Nora, "Bein Zikaron le-Historia -- Al ha-Be'ayah shel ha-Makom," in Zemanim 45 (Summer 1993), pp. 5-19. See his book, Le lieux de mémoire.

[3] The simple meaning is quite different: "On prey, my son, have you grown" (New JPS).

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