Questions of Life and Legacy

Vayehi By :  Daniel Nevins JTS Alum (Rabbinical School), Former Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and the Division of Religious Leadership Posted On Dec 21, 2018 / 5779 | Torah Commentary

This final parashah of Genesis bears a cryptic title: Vayehi, “He (that is, Jacob) lived.” Well, of course he lived, and soon he will die, but how has he lived? What legacy does he bequeath? These are the questions that concern Vayehi. What is the Torah’s final judgment of Jacob, a man who has wrestled, mourned and rejoiced, deceived and been deceived; a man who has been wounded and yet prevails, who has been humbled by his sons and yet manages to retain enough vigor and authority to command them until his dying breath? How has he lived?

The question of life and legacy pertains also to Jacob’s 12 sons as they are summoned to their father’s deathbed to hear his final testament. This is not a Hollywood ending with soaring violins and tearful embraces. Jacob is a tough man, and his assessments of the boys are frank and often cutting. He addresses each in turn—how did they live, and what will be the consequences of their deeds?

The same question of life-judgment is especially keen regarding the enigmatic figure of Joseph. Jacob lavishes his favorite son with covenantal blessings (Gen. 49:22–26), calling Joseph a great man, “the elect of his brothers.” Still, Jacob’s blessing contains obscure images of Joseph, who is also described as a “wild ass.” How, in the end, does Jacob regard this son and sometime stranger, a man who has been beloved and despised, enslaved and enriched, magnanimous and vindictive? Joseph has been both dutiful and subversive toward his father. Who, in the final reckoning, is Joseph? How did he live and what is his legacy?

The Rabbis are of two minds about Joseph. In the Talmud (BT Sotah 13a), Rav Yehudah cites Rav in criticizing Joseph for allowing his own father to be humbled before him. This refers to the occasions (five times in chapters 43–44) in which the brothers address the still-disguised Joseph and refer to Jacob as “your servant, our father.” According to Rav Yehudah, Joseph should somehow have corrected his brother’s description of their father as “your servant,” even if it meant blowing his cover. As a result, Joseph had to suffer the indignity of requesting that his brothers “take my bones up with you” when they leave Egypt.

Rabbi Samuel Eliezer ben Rabbi Judah Halevi Edels (known as “the Maharshah,” Poland, 1555–1632) explains that according to the Talmud, the father contributes the bones to his child (because they are white, like semen), thus explaining Joseph’s curious statement. If so, then Joseph was really saying, “Because I did not honor our father properly, take his contribution, my bones, away with you.” Perhaps, but it is simple enough to feel the pathos of Joseph’s plea to have his desiccated remains transported to his unhappy homeland several centuries hence. Moreover, this verse hardly captures the enormity of Joseph’s 20-year silence and the torment he visited upon his father by imprisoning Simeon and then demanding that Benjamin be brought to him in Egypt. Is Joseph a good guy or not? How did he live?

On the same page of Talmud, Rav Yehudah cites Rav again (or perhaps this time it is Rabbi Hama citing Rabbi Hanina) to tell us that, furthermore, Joseph died before his brothers did because he “conducted himself with arrogance” (see the parallel statement in BT Berakhot 55a). What does this mean? It is undeniable that Joseph was a commanding figure, but can you blame him? Wasn’t his forceful personality the key to saving Egypt and thereby his own family? And didn’t Joseph’s dreams teach him to expect obeisance from others, especially from his family?

This tradition of ascribing arrogance to Joseph is opposed by another rabbinic tradition claiming that despite his power, Joseph retained his sense of humility. In Midrash Shemot Rabbah (1:7) the Rabbis claim that Joseph thought of himself as the least of the sons, both when he was a slave and also when he had ascended to power in Egypt.

Furthermore, the Rabbis give Joseph the superlative title of “the Saint” (Yosef Hatzaddik). Whether it is for resisting Potiphar’s wife and then crediting God for his ability to interpret dreams, or for his ramified rescue plan for Egypt and his great concern for the physical and even spiritual welfare of his family—in all of these ways Joseph earns the respect of the Rabbis.

I would add another point of admiration for Joseph: in all of his great deeds, he acts alone. To borrow from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s famous title, Joseph is a “lonely man of faith.” With whom can he share his faith in God or take counsel? With the brothers who nearly murdered him and then sold him into slavery? With his wife, the daughter of the priest of On? With Pharaoh? Yet for all his isolation, Joseph is never shaken from his abiding faith in God or from his dedication to moral conduct. Joseph does not receive prophecies from God in the same way as his ancestors did. His knowledge of God is the product of dreams and introspection. It is not family, society, or even prophecy that establishes Joseph as a servant of God—he himself must invent his religious persona, and in this he is both extraordinary and accessible.

Joseph is understandable to modern readers because we too function in a seductive society in which our Jewish identity is either hidden or at least partitioned from our more universal identity. Many of us are blessed with supportive families, and few of us suffer the trials of Joseph, but all of us can relate to the demand that we invent our own individual relationship with God. The book of Genesis, the story of Creation, ends with a form of creation that we each undertake—the creation of a lifestory.

For us, too, the title of the final parashah is a question and a challenge: Vayehi. When our own story is over, when we are spoken of in the past tense, how will others say that we lived? Like Joseph, we will present our heirs with a bundle of contradictions—which of our qualities and deeds will be deemed most significant and representative of the whole? What will have been our distinctive contribution, and what spiritual legacy will we bequeath to others? These are the questions that hovered over the heads of our ancestors, and these are our questions too. As we complete the first book of the Torah, we pray for strength to move through its five stages, growing with our ancestors in merit and in the knowledge of God’s path to holiness.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).