This week’s parasha, Vayechi, is taken up with the death of the last of the Patriarchs, Jacob, and his son, Joseph.
Jacob is very old and knows that he will die soon. He asks Joseph to promise that Joseph will take him back to Canaan to be buried. Before his death, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh – this blessing is carried forward to today, as Jewish parents bless their sons that “you should be like Ephraim and Manasseh” because they were loyal to Judaism despite growing up in a place of idol worship. Jacob also blesses each of his other sons, with blessings that fit their characters, even if the characteristic is bad.
When Jacob dies, Joseph fulfills his promise to take Jacob’s body back to Canaan for burial. This would be difficult for anyone other than Pharoah’s viceroy, but Joseph is able to do this because of his power and position.
Exactly because Joseph is powerful and second only to Pharoah, the brothers are afraid that Joseph will now seek vengeance against them for selling him into slavery. The other brothers convince Dan and Naphtali, who are close to Joseph, to tell him that Jacob wanted Joseph to forgive the brothers of their sin. The brothers even offer to be Joseph’s slaves. But Joseph tells them “Fear not, for am I instead of God? Though you meant to do me harm, God meant for it to be good, in order to accomplish – it is as clear as this day – that a great people be kept alive.”
This discussion among the brothers gives us a glimpse of what will soon occur. Jacob’s descendants – the children of Israel – will indeed become slaves. This occurs not because they treated Joseph or anyone else badly, but because they treated themselves badly. They became so comfortable in Egypt that they adopted local customs, forgot the teachings of the Patriarchs and enslaved their own spirits. And just as Joseph forgives his brothers because he knows that God means their actions for good, so does God forgive the Israelites, over and over again. Despite forsaking Jewish customs in Egypt, God fulfills his promise to take the people out of Egypt and return them to Canaan. In the Wilderness, when the people revolt against Moses and God’s commandments, God forgives them many times.
Next week we will begin telling this amazing story – the redemption from Egypt – through God’s signs and wonders and the intervention of a reluctant hero, Moses.