“Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty-seven years.” So begins the Torah section of Vayechi (“and he lived”)—the closing Parshah of the book of Genesis, and the last of the seven Parshahs describing the life of Jacob.
The days drew near for Israel to die. He called his son Joseph, and said to him . . . “Do me a kindness and truth: please, do not bury me in Egypt. I will lie with my fathers; and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burial place.”
Joseph swears to do his father’s bidding, and Jacob bows to his son. Shortly after, Jacob falls ill, and Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to their grandfather’s bedside. Jacob blesses them that they will each father a tribe in Israel, thereby elevating them to the status of his sons: “Ephraim and Manasseh, as Reuben and Simeon they shall be to me.”
In blessing them, Jacob places his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Manasseh’s, crossing his arms, since Joseph had placed the elder Manasseh to his father’s right. Joseph thinks that his father—who has grown blind in his old age and illness—doesn’t realize that the elder son is to his right; but Jacob says:
“I know it, my son, I know it. He (Manasseh) also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.”
Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah
Jacob called to his sons, and said: “Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days.”
Jacob then proceeds to bless each of his twelve sons; his blessings define the respective roles of the twelve tribes which will issue from them to comprise the nation of Israel. Some of the sons are also rebuked for their failings.
Reuben is rebuked for his interference in Jacob’s marital life:
Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might and the first of my strength; the excellency of dignity and the excellency of power.
Hasty as water, you shall not excel, because you went up and violated your father’s bed . . .
Simeon and Levi are rebuked for the massacre of Shechem and their role in the sale of Joseph:
Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of violence are their weapons. . . . In their anger they slew a man, and in their willfulness they maimed a bull. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
Judah is praised for saving Joseph’s life, and is invested with the leadership of Israel: the kings, governors and legislators of the Jewish people, up to and including the Messiah, shall be from the tribe of Judah.
Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have risen . . .
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the legislator from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and nations submit to him.
Judah’s portion in the Holy Land will be blessed with vineyards and prime pastureland: “His eyes are red with wine, and his teeth white with milk.”
Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, Asher and Naphtali
“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea, and he shall be a haven for ships,” for his descendants will be seafaring merchants.
Issachar is endowed with the perseverance that is demanded of the tribe of Torah scholars he will yield; he is “a strong-boned donkey couching down between the boundaries, bowing his shoulder to the load . . .”
Dan shall produce great judges. Foreseeing the heroic life of one such judge, Samson, Jacob prophesies:
Gad shall produce the victorious warriors of Israel; Asher is blessed with a bounty of olive oil that will be grown and produced on his lands; “Naphtali is a deer running free, who delivers words of beauty.”
Joseph and Benjamin
Joseph is granted the blessings of fertility:
Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well, whose branches run over the wall.
The archers fiercely attacked him, shot at him and hated him. But his bow abode in strength . . .
The blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches beneath, blessings of the breasts and womb . . . they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the brow of the elect of his brothers.
Benjamin is likened to “a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil.”
All these are the twelve tribes of Israel; and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them. Every one according to his blessing he blessed them.
He charged them, and said to them: “I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers . . . in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah. . . . There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they buried Isaac and Rebecca his wife; and there I buried Leah.”
The Passing of Jacob
When Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, expired and was gathered to his people.
Joseph fell on his father’s face, wept upon him and kissed him.
Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father. . . . And Egypt wept for him seventy days . . .
Joseph went up [to Canaan] to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the house of Joseph, and his brothers and his father’s house . . . a very great company . . .
His sons carried him into the land of Canaan, and buried him in the cave of the Machpelah field, the field which Abraham had bought for a possession of a burying place from Ephron the Hittite . . .
The Testament of Joseph
After Jacob’s passing, his sons are seized with a new fear: perhaps Joseph has waited these seventeen years out of respect for their father, but will now avenge himself on them for selling him into slavery? So they send word to Joseph:
“Your father commanded before he died, saying: ‘So shall you say to Joseph: Forgive, I beg you now, the trespass of your brothers, and their sin, for they did evil to you.’ And now, we beg of you, forgive the trespass of the servants of the G‑d of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him . . .
Joseph said to them: “Fear not; for am I in the place of G‑d? You thought evil against me; but G‑d meant it for good, to bring it to pass at this day that many people should be saved alive. Now therefore, fear not; I will nourish you, and your little ones.” And he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts.
Joseph lived 110 years, living to see his children’s grandchildren: “Also the children of Machir the son of Manasseh were raised on Joseph’s knees.” Before his passing, he conveys the following testament to the children of Israel in Egypt:
G‑d will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land to the land of which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.
G‑d will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones from here.
It is from these words that the children of Israel will draw their hope and faith in the difficult years to come.
Joseph’s body is placed in a coffin to await the day of return to the Promised Land.