We go now to the part of the Biblical story where Jacob dies. Naturally, the name of the portion is “Vayechi : and he lived.” Jacob’s death heralds big changes for the future of the nation of Israel. Hyperbole? I think not.
Jacob dies in a way that is unprecedented in the Bible. His sons are actually present at his death. This is a big deal, because father and son reconcilement in person doesn’t have a loof history in the Bible. After all, when Abraham died, his sons (Isaac and Ishmael) were estranged and far apart from each other. When Isaac died, his sons (Jacob and Esau) were likewise, far apart from each other, although they had reconciled beforehand, though still separated from their dad. With Jacob, for the first time, a father is able to meet his grandchildren and give his final words to his sons.
The deathbed scene begins with Jacob surrounded by his grandsons, the children of the favorite son he never expected to see again, much less meet his sons. True to the patriarch form, he’s prepared to give out blessings to the children, or in this case, grandchildren. Jacob starts to follow the generations-old pattern of blessing the younger son Ephraim, over the older son, Menasseh. (As a reminder, Isaac was younger than Ishmael, and Jacob was younger than Esau. For that matter, Abel was younger than Cain, going way back to the Garden of Eden family.)
What Jacob does here is notable for what doesn’t happen. For the first time, after rearranging the birth orders of two brothers, they don’t hate each other. They don’t become enemies. They don’t become estranged. There is no record of Menasseh resenting the fact that his younger brother got the “first” blessing. In fact, by every indication, they remain dutiful and loyal sons until their father Joseph’s death at a ripe old age. Joseph is the only Biblical father whose family has remained intact throughout his life.
This is big. What is so different about Joseph’s life that let this be so? The cynical among us might suggest that it was because he was separated from his toxic family dynamic for so many years. (Insert a collection of people to a larger identity. Jacob was also named Israel, and his dual function was manifested in his dual name. He was the fulcrum, the tipping point between family (of Jacob) and nation (of Israel). His son, Joseph, was born into the family, but lived as part of a larger identity, even while in a strange land. So, by the time Joseph died, the transition was complete. The nation of Israel, living together in a strange land, spent the next hundreds of years of slavery, forging them even moreso into a definitive people.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife, has a parasha that begins with her death, Chaye Sarah (the life of Sarah). It parallels this week’s parasha, Vayechi, (and he [Jacob] lived), but which really tells of Jacob’s death. But in Sarah’s instance, her death abruptly stops her story. She has no idea what will happen to her family after she dies. Sarah is living apart from her husband, and tradition says when she hears what Abraham tried to do to Isaac, she simply died. She has no idea if her sons repair their relationship. She and Isaac, her favorite, never get to speak again, nor does he ever speak with his father again.
With Jacob’s death, new patterns are set in motion. As Jacob’s sons witness their father’s end of life, so do Joseph’s sons. There is face-to-face continuity between generations. The cycle of bitterness between brothers has ended, and in true Biblical style the story of a family’s intimate moments become the template for an entire nation.