By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Vayechi marks the end of Sefer Bereishis and the profound lessons of maaseh avos siman lebonim 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 shevotim.
The posuk relates 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 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 dom.”
Finally, Yaakov blesses them with the immortal words, “Becha yevoreich Yisroel leimor, yesimcha Elokim k’Efraim v’ch’Menashe.”
To understand the interaction, we have to answer several questions. Why did Yaakov elevate the status of Efraim and Menashe to that of the shevotim? Why is the mention of Rochel Imeinu’s burial place interjected here, in the middle of the narrative about the brachos 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 the 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 go 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, the shibud intensified. In other words, the golus of Mitzrayim – particularly the pain and the challenge of being a despised minority in a hostile environment – 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 shevotim, went to visit him and receive his brachos. 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 arrived in golus first and paved the way for the Bnei Yisroel there. Although 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 throughout the generations can survive in golus.
While they had no community of fellow observant Jews, they did not succumb to the ever-present temptations surrounding them in decadent Mitzrayim. By singling them out, Yaakov was demonstrating to the brothers and Jews for all time that even in exile, they could 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 although they were born in the exile and lived in Egypt prior to the arrival of Yaakov and his sons, they were still 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 a model of how they want their own children to develop, despite the tumah and moral bankruptcy around them.
Yosef Hatzaddik showed the way for the Bnei Yisroel to live in golus, also helping 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 that way he was able to show those who would follow him that it is 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 Eisov. With his birth, Yaakov knew that he could leave the golus of Lavan, vanquish Eisov, and return to the Promised Land.
Yosef not only shows the way in golus, but 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. The 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 Yirmiyohu 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 Hashem to be merciful with the Jews in golus and make sure that 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 Yirmiyohu’s prophecy points to the other key characteristic of Yosef, and that is to help bring about the geulah. 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. 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, but also lead us to the redemption. To emphasize this point, Yaakov promoted Efraim, grandfather of Yehoshua.
Yosef not only enabled Yaakov to triumph over Eisov, 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 leave Lovon and 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, Yosef’s remains, as the posuk (Shemos 13:19) recounts, “Ki hashbei’a hishbi’a 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 benign golus of America, we would do ourselves a favor 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.
Our yeshiva system is currently under threat in New York State. We will overcome those who doubt our dedication to education and the future of our children if we remain strong and honest in the face of wrongful accusations. Like our forebears throughout the many centuries of exile, we respectfully and forthrightly argue for what we deserve. We maintain our dignity as we recognize our situation and intelligently set forth our arguments and preserve our fidelity to Torah and its study.
Too often, we get lost in the daily news and fail to see the bigger picture. When the deluge of negativity and frightening news threatens to overwhelm, it is comforting to note that miracles happen every day, as we say in davening, “V’al nisecha shebechol yom imonu.”
Sometimes we recognize them, but too often we don’t. Let’s be on the lookout for them and appreciate the good that we have. It helps us deal with the challenges of life when we know that we are not alone.
Mussar great Rav Eizik Sher, heir to the derech of Slabodka, arrived in Eretz Yisroel a few steps ahead of the approaching Nazis, who had set their sights on world dominion after decimating Europe. The German Afrika Corps, under the leadership of the vaunted General Erwin Rommel, marched on towards Yerushalayim.
Tzaddikim counseled calm and great men believed that Hashem would save them, but the general mood in the Holy Land was tense. The Nazis were heading to Eretz Yisroel and there was no military means available to stop them.
As people feared for their lives, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva addressed a large gathering. He shared a story about two people who were walking during those fearful times. Suddenly, a group of mosquitoes darkened the air around them, disturbing them. One of them lifted his arm and swatted the flock of pesky insects.
“To Hakadosh Boruch Hu,” the man told his companion, “strong armies are less significant than those mosquitoes.”
The audience was comforted by Rav Sher’s story, as they perceived the truth of the spoken words. In an extraordinary and surprising turn of events, the Nazi army was rendered powerless and retreated to Germany like a pack of mosquitoes.
Those who seek to institute the new laws are not Nazis, nor should they be perceived as such. But the lesson from the story is that we must faithfully continue on our mission to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim in everything we do. We act in ways that are pleasant to man and Hashem, whether it is in the way we drive, shop, walk, talk, deal with others or fight back against people who seek to deter us. Our public and private interaction with others should always leave them with a fine impression, so that when we are portrayed negatively, people will think twice before accepting misrepresentations and negative caricatures.
Our faith in Hakadosh Boruch Hu will be rewarded, and ultimately we will prevail, as we have since we became exiles.
If we rectify our sins and behave properly, our long-awaited arrival will be heralded by the appearance of Moshiach ben Yosef, because, as we have learned from a deeper look at 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.