In this week’s parsha, Vayechi, we close the Book of Genesis and the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Jacob is 147 years old, and has Joseph swear that he will bury his father in Canaan in the Cave of Machpelah, where the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs (except Rachel) are buried.
When Joseph learns that Jacob is ill, he brings his two sons to Jacob for a blessing. Jacob blesses the younger son, Ephraim, before the older son, Manasseh. Jacob also blesses each of his own sons, in a way that foretells something special about their future.
Jacob dies, and Joseph asks Pharaoh’s permission to take his father’s remains to Canaan to bury him, as he swore to Jacob. As the viceroy, Joseph is important to Egypt, and he needs Pharaoh’s permission to leave. Because of the long Egyptian mourning period and journey to Canaan, Joseph has Jacob’s body embalmed. Joseph and his brothers leave to bury Jacob, together with their “households” – servants and older children. The brothers leave their young children and their sheep and cattle in Egypt.
Why do the children and flocks and herds remain in Egypt? Perhaps because taking them will be a hardship on them, or will delay the travel of the brothers to and from Canaan. Rabbanit Sharon Rimon looks at other discussions involving whether the Children of Israel should travel without their young children, sheep and cattle. She suggests that whether the young and the animals stay or go is a sign that the Israelites will return or leave permanently. (“Joseph – From Exile to Redemption” in Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach, Bereishit).
When Pharaoh told Joseph to bring his family to Egypt, he ordered that wagons be given to Joseph so he and his brothers could bring their small children and wives. (Parasha Vayigash, Genesis 45:19) Just before the Exodus, when Moses has told Pharaoh that the Israelites must go into the Wilderness to worship God, Moses declares, “We shall go with our youth and with our elderly, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and our cattle … .” Pharaoh does not want the Israelites to leave permanently, and tells Moses that only the men can go. (Parasha Bo, Exodus 10:9-11).
Rabbanit Rimon explains, because Joseph and his brothers willingly left their children, sheep and cattle when they went to Canaan to bury Jacob, that journey was the beginning of the enslavement of the Children of Israel. The Israelites had become comfortable living in the fruitful land of Goshen, and felt at home in Egypt, even though it was filled with idol worship and immorality.
The parasha ends with the return of Joseph and his brothers to Egypt, and Joseph’s death at the age of 110. So closes the story of how the Children of Israel came to live in Egypt for several generations. Soon they will go from lives of privilege and comfort to slavery. The Ramban compared the descent to Egypt and the Israelites’ lives there to the exile of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Second Temple. He saw this as an example of an important principle: Everything that occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign for their descendants. (Ramban on Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:6, and on Vayechi, Genesis 47: 28).
Watch for these signs during the next few months as the Israelites go from the depths of hardship and loss of spirit to receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.