At the beginning of this week’s parsha Yosef discovers that his father is ill. He comes to Yaakov’s bedside with his two sons as Yaakov summons the strength to sit up in bed to speak to his child and grandchildren. The posukim then continue as follows:
Yaakov first tells Yosef that God revealed Himself in Luz, and promised that Yaakov’s progeny would inherit the land and continue his legacy for generations.
Yaakov here “adopts” Yosef’s children as perpetuators of the covenant, a part of the Shevatim. This is the first posuk that we will be dealing with herein.
This second posuk simply states that any future children of Yosef would not be included in the Shevatim, nor in the perpetuation of the covenant.
While there is a clear connection between the first two posukim here, this third verse seems to come out of nowhere; it is utterly unexpected. What is the continuity or pertinence? How does this third posuk fit as a logical progression after the previous two?
Rashi & Ohr HaChaim
We turn first, of course, to Rashi:
Rashi explains this posuk as being an apology of sorts from Yaakov to Yosef for essentially leaving Yosef’s mother on the side of the road. Yaakov asks here, at the end of his life, for forgiveness from his son for how he treated his mother upon her death.
We should note here that Rashi does not base this interpretation on midrash; it is rather simply his suggested pshat in the posuk. Indeed, many other Rishonim suggest the same, or a similar, reading of this posuk.
But this reading of the posuk is most unsatisfactory. For one, the language does not seem to imply any sort of apologetics. Worse, if indeed Rashi’s reading of an apology here is correct, this verse should have instead appeared in the previous perek in which Yaakov discusses the other burials in Chevron. Why is this posuk found here, specifically? It still seems terribly out of place. Indeed, Ohr HaChaim echoes our concerns (Commentary on Bereishis 48:7), and also adds the question of what exactly Yaakov meant that Rachel died “unto” him.
Where Is The Emotion?
To address these concerns, and answer these questions, I shall draw upon Rav Mendel Blachman’s explanation of these events.
It is most clear from the posukim that Yaakov is a man of serious emotion. When he learned Yosef had disappeared he fell into a state of terrible mourning, refusing to be consoled for years. Later, he is extremely concerned with Binyamin leaving his side. Earlier in his life, he falls instantly in love with Rachel upon first laying his eyes on her, sending gifts before he even gets to know her! And there are many other examples of Yaakov’s powerful expressions of emotions throughout his life.
When Sarah dies, Avraham cries, mourns, and spends much energy and money to deal with her burial in the best of ways. It is a beautiful and touching story to read. When Rachel dies, however, we see no emotional response from Yaakov whatsoever. The very man from whom we would expect the largest emotional response, we instead see nothing. There is no recorded mourning, no speech, no effort. He doesn’t even bother to bury her in the nearest city! He instead simply buries her on the side of the road, and moves on.
This is quite an odd, indeed disturbing, turn of events. The Torah presents the character of Yaakov as deeply emotional. Something is very wrong with our current picture of this situation. 36 years later he still finds himself attached to Rachel, unable to part with her second and final son, Binyamin. He doesn’t want to lose her. So where is this emotion at Rachel’s burial? Where does he take the time to talk about her?
Quite simply, in this week’s parsha.
Yaakov’s Psychological State
It is a well known axiom in psychology that people that go through a traumatic experience struggle to let go and move on until they have closure. It does not take a world-class psychologist to recognize that this is precisely what is going on in this story of Yaakov. Upon Rachel’s death Yaakov finds himself in a state of total shock. Indeed, from that point forward his entire life falls apart. He pours himself entirely into Yosef, Rachel’s son. Yaakov favored Yosef because of the very fact that Yaakov still had unfinished business with his mother. Rachel was supposed to be the matriarch of all future generations of Yaakov — the perpetuator of the covenant. But Rachel had died בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ, midway, with Yaakov’s and her own legacy incomplete, uncertain, and unfinished.
And then Yaakov lost Yosef, and finds himself about to lose Binyamin as well — the only living child of Rachel, and the last chance of continuing his legacy. To this day we say “רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ”, very much considering Rachel to the true matriarch of the nation with Sarah in the picture only secondarily. But at that point in time, it looked as if the reverse was going to be true. What was to be of God’s plan from Yaakov’s perspective?! All hope appeared to be lost.
Pharaoh Greets Yaakov
The story of when Yaakov first meets Pharaoh is very telling in reference to this discussion.
Upon first seeing Yaakov, Pharaoh asks the simple question of how old Yaakov is. Yaakov’s response, however, is most elaborate:
Yaakov should have simply replied with his age; instead he tells Pharaoh his whole life’s story! He tells him how lousy his life had been, and even speaks about how his forefathers had a better life than he has had. Pharaoh didn’t even know that he had forefathers! Yaakov’s answer is not at all in response to the question that Pharaoh asked. The expected response on Yaakov’s part is simple and straightforward. Instead, Pharaoh gets a dissertation, bringing to mind the image of an elderly gentleman pulling out his x-rays and prescriptions upon being asked how he is feeling.
This encounter of an old man rambling on about his life is important? Why are we told about this?
Egyptian Culture & Yaakov
Egypt is employed repeatedly by Chazal — throughout both Midrash and Gemara — as the epitome of poor sexual ethics. Egyptian “seed was as the seed of horses”, and the Midrash relates that during the Plague of the Firstborn there were multiple deaths in each household. Children were simply the price of a few moments of pleasure, not a calculated decision. (It was for this reason that the Egyptians were clearly so blasé about killing them.)
For the ancient Egyptian there was no tomorrow, nor was there a yesterday. There was simply today — and the hope that today would stay as long as possible.
As monotheists, however, we are absolutely obsessed with the past — and we are equally obsessed with children. Having children is the ability to bring about the next generation, and continue a legacy into the future. An Egyptian life focuses only on the present. A semitic life, on the other hand, is connected to the past and the future. It is a life of purpose and direction.
Yaakov’s answer to Pharaoh’s question was that he hasn’t been alive for 130 years, but rather that he had simply been around for that time. These are two profoundly different things. The years of his life, as evidenced by his little soliloquy to Pharaoh, had been disjointed and disconnected; it was not a “life” at all. Yaakov’s reply to Pharaoh was not the rambling of an old man, but rather an expression of the deep-seated cultural difference between himself and the Egyptians. Yaakov was disconnected from his life and purpose, his wife was long gone, as were his children that were supposed to continue his legacy. He did not understand the broader picture of his life. It was not adding up for him. He was in disarray. Without a connection to the past and future, Yaakov’s life was meaningless.
Then, this week’s parsha begins “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years”, as he came to understand that God had never really left him. Yaakov was now able to see that his children were able to exist even in the non-sterile environment of Egypt. All was far from lost. It was now clear to Yaakov that his generations long into the future would be able to survive in whatever culture they should find themselves in. No longer was it just a question of “the days of Yaakov”; Yaakov was alive.
The unfinished business was now able to be finished, as Yaakov realized that he had two more Shevatim after all — Ephraim and Menasheh, the children of Yosef. But these two were qualitatively different children — they were born and raised in a different cultural environment, one hostile to their values. Yaakov realized at this juncture, however, that it was these children specifically that were promised to him by God when he was told that he would father a nation.
On The Side Of The Road
When Rachel died Yaakov lost not only his dear wife, but also his promise from God, his nation. As S’forno explains, the death of a woman is felt first and foremost by her husband, ergo the phrasing of Rachel’s death as being “unto” Yaakov. Indeed, S’forno continues that Yaakov was so positively stricken with grief when Rachel first died that he did not have the strength to transport Rachel’s remains even to the nearest town (Commentary on Bereishis 48:7). He left her on the side of the road because he could not do anything more. He did not have closure. Yaakov’s life and legacy had been ripped out from beneath him in an instant rendering him incapable of processing.
In Vayechi, however, Yaakov finds closure as he sits with his son and grandsons by his side. Now things add up for Yaakov. Yaakov tells Yosef that his sons are to become his own — they are what was promised to him by God years before. Now Yaakov could “bury” Rachel. With his future legacy secured, he could finally let go.
Yaakov was in that moment able to see how his life did, in fact, add up. Rachel had not died בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ. It was a messy life, Yaakov’s, but it had, in fact, been moving towards something great all along, towards Ephraim and Menasheh.
They were the children that grew up in the culture of Egypt, but never let go.