Jacob’s last days – An example for us?
Sermonic explanation of unusual beginning
The final Torah portion in Genesis not only commences in the middle of chapter 47, but in Torah scroll there is no customary space separating this portion from the one before it. Rashi (based on Genesis Rabbah) offers two homiletical explanations. One is that after Jacob dies, the hearts (meaning, mind) of the Israelites “closed,” because they began being enslaved. The other is that Jacob wanted to disclose to his children when the exile and travail of their descendants would end, but his prophetic vision was “closed,” and he couldn’t tell them.
According to one tradition, the Israelite enslavement did not begin until all of Jacob’s children died. Would this tradition challenge Rashi’s first explanation for the lack of a space in the Torah scroll before the beginning of the new portion? Or can we say that the process of enslavement was slow and may have commenced slowly after Jacob’s death? Does the Israelite’s suffering and not knowing when the end of the exile will be have any connection to the lack of space between the Torah portions?
Burial in Israel
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. He foresaw that Egypt’s land would be turned into lice during the Ten Plagues “and they would swarm beneath my body.” He believed that unless he was buried in Canaan, his bones would have to be transported through subterranean tunnels to Israel, and this would pain him. He didn’t want the Egyptians to venerate his body, as idolaters did. Are these superstitious reasons? Is there any advantage to being buried in Israel?
Jacob gives a special blessing to Joseph’s children and not to any of his other grandchildren, and he regards Joseph’s children as if they are his sons (Genesis 48:5). Once again, he shows preference to his beloved wife Rachel’s offspring. He promises that future generations will mention Joseph’s children when they bless their own children: “May the Lord make you as Ephraim and Manasseh,” thus insuring a special place in Jewish life for Joseph’s children. Many fathers pronounce this blessing on Friday evenings while placing their hands on their sons’ heads. Ephraim and Manasseh were also counted among the twelve tribes of Israel.
Why didn’t Jacob learn from his earlier experiences to refrain from showing favoritism? Is it possible that the split between the tribes after King Solomon’s death, a split led by a descendant of Joseph’s sons who wanted to rule Israel, was one result of this favoritism? Can we justify Jacob’s action?
It is interesting that Jacob’s blessing that is said for Jewish sons expresses the hope that they become “as Ephraim and Manasseh,” while our daughters receive the blessing, “May the Lord make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to bless our sons with the hope that God would make them like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our patriarchs?
Some suggest that Jacob had prophetic knowledge that the Israelite nation would experience lengthy exiles, so he singled out Ephraim and Manasseh—the only members of his family who were born and reared in exile (Egypt), and who retained a strong sense of their Hebrew identity, and did not succumb to assimilation. But, how do we know they didn’t assimilate? The Torah doesn’t speak about their behavior. Does the failure of the Torah to describe the two as exemplary men indicate that they were not exemplary? Should we say the same about Moses’ two sons?
 This essay is adapted from my and Dr. Stanley Wagner’s book “What’s Beyond the Bible Text?”
 The ancients thought that thinking came from the heart.
 The true non-sermonic reason is most likely that the second half of the first millennia Masorites, who among much else, divided the portions, did not feel that a division was appropriate here; the contents of the opening of this portion followed what precedes it. However, later, the Torah was divided into 54 portions so the entire book could be read in yearly cycles, and these people had a different idea, but they retained the Masoretic divisions, which by that time had become a tradition.