Genesis’ final portion

The final Torah portion of Genesis begins in the middle of chapter 47. But in the Torah scroll used in synagogues, no customary space separates this biblical portion from the former one. Why? Rashi (based on Genesis Rabbah) offers two homiletical explanations. One is that after Jacob died, the hearts of the Israelites “closed” because they began being enslaved. The other is that Jacob wants to disclose to his children when the exile and travail of their descendants will end, but his prophetic vision is “closed,” and he can’t tell them. He is suggesting that the lack of separation suggests these “closed” ideas.  Is this rational?

According to tradition, the Israelite enslavement did not begin until all of Jacob’s children died. Doesn’t this challenge Rashi’s first explanation for the Torah scroll’s lack of space before the new weekly Torah portion begins? Regarding his second suggestion, does the Israelites’ suffering and not knowing the end of the exile have any connection to the lack of space between the Torah portions?

Actually, the reason for the portion of Vayechee beginning within chapter 47 with no space between Vayechee and the prior weekly portion is that Jews did not originate dividing the Torah into chapters. Although many of the chapter divisions make no sense, Jews accepted the division in most incidences for the same reason the Christians instituted it. It facilitates making references to Biblical texts by describing the desired section by chapter and verse. However, the Masorites had their own ideas about dividing the Torah into paragraphs and sentences. They felt that Genesis 47:28 was not a new section. It is connected to what proceeds it. So, they placed no separation between verses 27 and 28. We use the Masoretic version in our synagogues.


Joseph’s Promise to Jacob

Jacob extracts a promise from Joseph that he will bury him with his ancestors in the land of Canaan (Genesis 47:29–31). Rashi offers three reasons why Jacob wanted to be buried in Canaan. (1) He foresaw that Egypt’s land would be turned into lice during the Ten Plagues, “and they would swarm beneath my body.” (2) Unless he was buried in Canaan, his bones would have to be transported through underground tunnels to Israel, and this would pain him. (3) He didn’t want the Egyptians to venerate his body. Is this rational? Is this rational? What is the advantage of being buried in Israel?


Jacob’s blessings

Jacob gives a special blessing to Joseph’s children and not to any of his other grandchildren and regards Joseph’s children as his sons (Genesis 48:5). He again shows he prefers his beloved wife Rachel’s offspring and ignores the tragedies this preference created in the past.

Is it possible that the split between the tribes after King Solomon’s death, led by a descendant of Joseph’s descendants who wanted to rule Israel, resulted from this favoritism? Can we justify Jacob’s action?

He promises that future generations will mention Joseph’s children when they bless their children: “May the Lord make you as Ephraim and Manasseh,” thus ensuring a special place in Jewish life for Joseph’s children. Many parents pronounce this blessing on Friday evenings while touching their sons’ heads.

Jacob’s blessing for Jewish sons, hoping they become “like Ephraim and Manasseh.” But daughters are blessed, “May the Lord make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to bless sons hoping God would make them like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our patriarchs?

It seems strange that the words addressed to Simeon and Levi (Genesis 49:5–7) do not suggest the role that the descendants of Levi would ultimately play as priests, teachers, and spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Jacob says instead, “Their swords are weapons of violence.”

The Torah seems to focus on the incident with the golden calf (Exodus 32:26–28) when the tribe of Levi killed three thousand Israelite idolaters. Also, Phineas from the tribe of Levi kills an Israelite and the woman he was having sexual relations with in public (Numbers 25:6–7). But Jacob could not know what would occur long after his death. Doesn’t it seem as though violence is the tribe of Levi’s hallmark?

Is violence for a just cause admirable? Haven’t more people been killed because of religion than any other cause? What made Levi worthy of the priesthood?

Jacob prophesies that the descendants of Judah will become the nation’s rulers (Genesis 49:10). Is the Torah certifying that hereditary rule is proper? Shouldn’t people be governed by the most capable rulers, regardless of their ancestry?

What about the priesthood, which is also hereditary? What about having fixed “classes” within a society?


Joseph’s brother’s fear

When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear he will hurt them for what they did to him. They sent a message to Joseph, “Your father commanded before his death, ‘Say this to Joseph, “I beg you, forgive now the guilt of your brothers and their offenses, although they did evil to you”’” (Genesis 50:15) However, there is no indication in Scripture that Jacob issued such a command. Moreover, we are not sure at all that Jacob even knew that his sons sold Joseph into slavery.

Additionally, wouldn’t it have made sense for Jacob to issue this command to Joseph when his children were gathered at his bedside before he died?

Hence, virtually all commentators agree that Jacob never said this and that Joseph’s brothers lied to protect themselves. Most add that what they did was permitted because, while truthfulness is high on the list of Jewish values, peace occupies an even higher rung on the ladder (Rashi, based on Genesis Rabbah). The Babylonian Talmud codifies this principle by stating: “It is permitted for a person to deviate [from the truth] for the sake of peace” (Yevamot 65b).

There is a similar instance in Genesis 18:12 and 13. Sarah disbelieved the announcement that she would have a child. She mentioned the improbability by pointing out that “my master [Abraham] is old.” But when God repeats Sarah’s words to Abraham, He says that she said, “I have grown old.” Rashi, based on Midrash Genesis Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 87a, suggests that God altered her words to preserve marital peace.

If it is permissible to deviate from the truth for peace or compassion, might this make it easier for people to move from a white lie to an outright lie? Is it proper to tell a bride she is beautiful when you don’t think so?

Joseph responds to his brothers’ fears by telling them not to worry, “Am I in the place of God?” He replies that God caused this (Genesis 50:19). Is he correct? Does God alter the laws of nature in this way?

Midrash Tanchuma notes that virtually this exact phrase is used by Jacob in an angry retort to Rachel, who is suffering and begs Jacob to help her because she is barren (Genesis 30:2). The sages condemn Jacob for his harshness and laud Joseph for his sensitivity. This is a perfect example of almost identical words being uttered with two different tones and two different implications.