These seventeen years were the best years of his life—years of prosperity, goodness and peace; his other 130 years were filled with toil and pain.
(Midrash; Baal HaTurim)
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789–1866) was a child attending cheder, his teacher taught the verse “Jacob lived for seventeen years in the land of Egypt” according to the commentary of the Baal HaTurim—that Jacob lived the best years of his life in Egypt.
When the child came home, he asked his grandfather Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: How can it be that our father Jacob, the greatest of the Patriarchs, lived the best years of his life in pagan Egypt?
Replied Rabbi Schneur Zalman: It is written that Jacob “sent Judah ahead of him . . . to show the way to Goshen” (Genesis 46:28). The Midrash explains that this was to establish a house of learning, where the sons of Jacob would study Torah. When one studies Torah, one is brought close to G‑d, so that even in Egypt one can live a true “life.”
Nevertheless, in the very next verses we read how Jacob entreats Joseph: “Carry me out of Egypt!” So great is his urgency that he is not content with an agreement or a promise on Joseph’s part, but insists that his son take a solemn oath to fulfill his request.
A Jew might find himself living a most ideal life in galut (exile)—a life of material comfort and spiritual fulfillment; a life of Torah, mitzvot and charitable works. Nevertheless, galut can never be our true home. We constantly sense that this is not our place, constantly beseech G‑d to “carry us out of Egypt.”
Nor do we content ourselves with the guarantees and promises written in the holy books that the redemption will eventually come. After praying for the redemption in the morning prayers, we do so again in the afternoon prayers, and yet again in the evening prayers. We approach G‑d every day, many times a day, to plead and clamor: Take us out of Egypt!
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the days of the righteous die, but they do not die. . . . It does not say “Israel drew near to die,” but “the days of Israel drew near to die.”
A kindness done to the dead is a true kindness, for one does not expect a favor in return.
The Midrash relates that when G‑d desired to create man, Truth argued that “he should not be created, for he is full of lies.” Kindness, however, said, “He should be created, for he is full of kindness.”
To this, Truth might have replied: “But that, too, is just another of man’s lies. Yes, man does acts of kindness to his fellows, but not because he is ‘full of kindness’—only because he expects them to be kind to him in return.”
However, there is one act of kindness that proves Truth wrong: the kindness done to the dead. This “kindness and truth,” as the Torah calls it, shows that man is capable of a truly altruistic deed, thereby attesting that all our acts of kindness—even those superficially tainted by selfish motives—are in essence true, deriving from an intrinsic desire to give of ourselves to our fellows.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
This bears out the popular saying, “A fox in its hour—bow down to it.”
(Talmud, Megillah 16b)
Abraham introduced aging to the world, Isaac affliction, and Jacob illness.
Abraham requested old age, pleading before G‑d: “Master of the Universe! When a man and his son enter a town, none know whom to honor.” Said G‑d to him: “By your life, you have asked a proper thing, and it will commence with you.” Thus, from the beginning of the Book aging is not mentioned, but when Abraham came, old age was granted to him, as is written: “And Abraham was old and come along in days” (Genesis 24:1).
Isaac asked for affliction, pleading thus: “Master of the Universe! When a man dies without affliction, Judgment threatens him; but if You afflict him, Judgment would not threaten him.” Said G‑d to him: “By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you.” Thus affliction is not mentioned from the beginning of the Book until Isaac, as is written: “It came to pass that when Isaac was old, his eyes were dimmed” (ibid. 27:1).
Jacob requested illness, saying to Him: “Master of the Universe! A man dies without previous illness, and does not settle his affairs with his children; but if he were two or three days ill, he would settle his affairs with his children.” Said G‑d to him: “By your life, you have asked well, and it will commence with you.” Thus it is written: “It was said to Joseph: Behold, your father is ill.”
And I, when I came from Padan, Rachel died by me in the land of Canaan on the way, when yet there was but a little way to come to Ephrath; and I buried her there by the way of Ephrath, that is Bethlehem (48:7)
Why did Jacob evoke the memory of Rachel’s burial?
So said Jacob to Joseph: I am asking you to trouble yourself to take me to be buried in the Land, even though I did not do the same for your mother. She died a short distance from Bethlehem, and I did not even take her to [Bethlehem], but buried her at the wayside.
I know that there is resentment in your heart to me over this. But know that it was by divine command that I buried her there, so that she should be a help for her children when Nebuzaradan will exile them and they will pass by there. Then Rachel will come out upon her grave and weep and plead for mercy for them, as it is written (Jeremiah 31:14): “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children . . .”; and G‑d will answer her, “There is reward for your toil . . . the children shall return to their own borders” (ibid., v. 15).
Manasseh shall be great in that Gideon shall come from him, and G‑d will perform miracles through him (see Judges chs. 6–8). But his younger brother shall be greater yet in that his descendant, Joshua, will conquer the Land and teach the Torah to Israel.
As it is written, “Joseph’s bones . . . they buried in Shechem” (Joshua 24:32).
This is analogous to thieves who stole a barrel full of wine; when the owner found them, he said: “Be so kind, when you finish drinking up the wine, to put the barrel back in its place.” So too, Joseph was kidnapped by his brothers in Shechem, and to Shechem they returned his bones.
Jacob had not desired his sons to perpetrate that deed; yet when they did perpetrate it, he exclaimed: “Shall I leave my sons to fall into the hands of the heathens?!” What did he do? He took his sword and bow and stood at the gate of Shechem, saying: “If the heathens come to attack my sons, I will fight against them.”
Did Jacob then conquer Shechem with sword and bow? But “my sword” is his prayer, and “my bow” is his supplication.
Why is prayer like a bow? Just like a bow, the more a person draws the bowstring to himself, the further the arrow flies, so it is with prayer: the deeper one delves into one’s own heart, the higher one’s prayer ascends . . .
(The Rebbe of Kotzk)
Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the end of the days (i.e., the time of the ultimate redemption), whereupon the Divine Presence departed from him.
(Talmud, Pesachim 56a)
[When the Divine Presence departed from Jacob,] he said: “Perhaps, heaven forfend, there is one unfit among my children, like Abraham, from whom there issued Ishmael, or like my father Isaac, from whom there issued Esau?” His sons answered him: “‘Hear O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is One.’ Just as there is only One in your heart, so is there in our heart only One.” At that moment our father Jacob exclaimed, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.”
Said the rabbis: How shall we act? Shall we recite it (the verse “Blessed be . . .” after the Shema)? But our teacher Moses did not say it. Shall we not say it? But Jacob said it. Hence they enacted that it should be recited quietly.
Said Jacob to them: You were brothers to Dinah, but you were not brothers to Joseph.
Said Jacob to Simeon and Levi: These instruments are stolen by you. They are not yours but Esau’s, to whom it was said (Genesis 27:40), “By your sword shall you live.” (The word used by the verse for “violence,” chamas, also means “robbery.”)
“In their anger they slew a man”—the inhabitants of Shechem, who could offer no more resistance than a single man; “and in their willfulness they maimed a bull”—Joseph, who is likened to a bull (Deuteronomy 33:17).
Even when he rebuked them, he cursed only their anger. Thus Baalam says (Numbers 23:8): “How can I curse whom G‑d has not cursed?”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
The tribe of Levi did not receive a province in the Holy Land (like the other tribes)—only cities scattered throughout the land. And all the paupers, scribes and schoolteachers of Israel, who are scattered about the land, are of the tribe of Simeon.
(Rashi; Lekach Tov)
From the prey of Joseph you rose, preventing his killing; from the prey of Tamar you rose, by conceding, “She is more righteous than me.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
The kingship of Israel originally belonged to Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn. But Reuben forfeited this right when he sinned by “violating his father’s marriage bed,” and the sovereignty was transferred to Judah. In his blessing to Judah, Jacob alludes to two virtues for which Judah merited the leadership of Israel:
a) When the other sons of Jacob plotted to kill Joseph, Judah saved his life by arguing that selling him into slavery would be a more “profitable” solution (Genesis 37:26–27).
b) Judah publicly admitted his culpability in the incident of Tamar, thereby saving her and her two unborn sons from death (ibid. 38:26).
It would seem, however, that on both accounts Reuben was Judah’s equal, if not his superior. Regarding the plot to kill Joseph, it was Reuben who first saved Joseph’s life by suggesting to his brothers that, instead of killing him, they should throw him into the pit. The Torah attests that he did this “to save him from their hands, in order to return him to his father.” (Reuben did not know that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, and that he was in fact jeopardizing Joseph’s life.) The Torah also tells us that Reuben was not present when Joseph was sold, that he was shocked at not finding Joseph in the pit when he returned to take him out, and that he berated his brothers for what they had done. Judah, on the other hand, only suggested a more profitable way of disposing of Joseph (the Torah says nothing about any hidden intentions), and was the cause of Joseph’s sale into slavery. Indeed, we later find the others accusing Judah: “It was you who told us to sell him. If you would have told us to return him to his father, we would have listened to you” (Rashi, Genesis 38:1).
As for Judah’s public penance, here too Reuben excelled over him. Reuben, too, admitted and repented his sin. And while Judah was faced with a choice to either admit his responsibility or cause the destruction of three innocent lives, the need for Reuben to publicly confess was far less compelling. Furthermore, Reuben’s penance did not end with a one-time admission of guilt, but continued to consume his entire being for many years. Our sages tell us that the reason that Reuben was not present at the time of Joseph’s sale—nine years after his sin—was that “he was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting” (ibid. 37:29).
Indeed, as far as personal virtue is concerned, Reuben surpassed Judah, in both the purity of his intentions regarding Joseph and the intensity of his repentance over his failings. But Judah was the one who actually saved Joseph, while Reuben unwittingly placed him in mortal danger. In the same vein, Judah’s repentance saved three lives, while Reuben’s remorse helped no one—in fact, had he not been preoccupied with “his sackcloth and his fasting,” he might have prevented Joseph’s sale into slavery.
Accordingly, Reuben retained his rights as Jacob’s firstborn in all that pertained to him as an individual (see ibid. 35:23). But Judah surpassed him in the most basic prerequisite for leadership: that concern for one’s fellow must always take precedence over one’s own pursuits, no matter how pious and lofty these pursuits might be. Believing Joseph safe for the time being, Reuben rushed back to attend to his prayers and penance, in effect abandoning him to his fate.
While Reuben prayed and fasted, Judah acted. Judah earned the leadership of Israel because he recognized that when another human being is in need, one must set aside all other considerations and get involved. Even if one’s own intentions are still short of perfection and one’s own character is yet to be refined. Sometimes, one cannot afford to wait.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The disciples of Rav Shila would say: The Messiah’s name is Shiloh, as it is stated, “Until Shiloh comes.” The disciples of Rabbi Chanina would say: His name is Chaninah, as it is stated (Jeremiah 16:13), “I will not give you Chaninah.” The disciples of Rabbi Yannai would say: His name is Yinnon, for it is written (Psalms 72:17), “Ere the sun was, his name is Yinnon.”
The tribes of Zebulun and Issachar formed a partnership: Zebulun engaged in commerce, and Issachar occupied himself in Torah study.
Thus Jacob placed Zebulun before Issachar (although Issachar was the elder of the two)—since if it were not for Zebulun, Issachar would not be able to occupy himself with the Torah.
“A strong-boned donkey” enduring the yoke of Torah, like the donkey, which is capable of carrying very heavy loads; “couching between the boundaries” like the donkey who walks day and night, never sleeping at home, resting only at the city limits where he delivers his bundles of merchandise.
“Couching between the boundaries”—between the secrets of creation and the secrets of the Divine Chariot.
One who says, “Give me justice,” indicates that he is from the tribe of Dan, as it is written: “Dan shall judge his people.”
(Talmud, Pesachim 4a)
This refers to Samson, who was of the tribe of Dan.
(As related in the book of Judges (16:27–30), when Samson was captured by the Philistines, blinded and brought in chains to a palace where “on the roof were three thousand men and women watching the torment of Samson,” he “grasped the two central pillars on which the house stood . . . and he bowed with all his might, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it. The dead whom he slew at his death were more than those he slew in his life.”)
Jacob saw Samson, and thought that he was the Messiah. But when he saw him dead, he exclaimed: “He, too, is dead! Then I wait for Your salvation, O G‑d!”
There will be an abundance of olives in his portion of the Land, and it will flow with oil like a wellspring. Moses, too, blessed the tribe of Asher thus, proclaiming: “He dips his foot in oil” (Deuteronomy 33:24).
Once the people of Laodicea were in need of oil. They appointed an agent and instructed him, “Go and purchase for us a hundred manehs’ worth of oil.”
He came first to Jerusalem and was told, “Go to Tyre.” He came to Tyre and was told, “Go to Gush Chalav.” When he came to Gush Chalav he was told, “Go to so-and-so in that field.” He went there and found the man breaking up the earth around his olive trees.
The agent said to him, “Have you the hundred manehs’ worth of oil that I require?” “Yes,” replied the other, “but wait until I finish my work.” After he had finished his work, the man threw his tools on his back and went on his way, removing the stones from his path as he went. The agent thought to himself, “Has this man really got a hundred manehs’ worth of oil? I see that the Jews have merely made sport of me.”
When the man reached his home, his maidservant brought out to him a bowl of hot water, and he washed his hands and his feet. She then brought out to him a golden bowl of oil, and he dipped in it his hands and his feet, thus fulfilling the verse “He dips his foot in oil.” After they had eaten and drunk, the man measured out to the agent a hundred manehs’ worth of oil, and then asked, “Do you perhaps need any more oil?” “I do, indeed,” replied the agent; “but I have no more money with me.” “Well, if you wish to buy more, take it, and I will go back with you for the money,” said the man. He then measured out for him another eighteen manehs’ worth of oil. It is said that he hired every horse, mule, camel and donkey that he could find in all the Land of Israel [to carry the oil back to Laodicea] . . .
(Talmud, Menachot 85b)
This refers to the Ginnosar valley (in the province of Naphtali), which is quick to ripen its fruit as a deer is swift to run, and upon which one delivers words of thanks and praises to G‑d.
Another meaning is that Jacob prophesied regarding the war with Sisera (Judges, ch. 4), in which victory was achieved through 10,000 swift warriors from the tribe of Naphtali; “Who delivers words of beauty” refers to the song of Deborah (from the tribe of Naphtali, sung to celebrate that victory).
(Midrash Tanchuma; Rashi)
This refers to the altar in the Holy Temple (which stood in the province of Benjamin), upon which the sacrifices were offered every morning and evening.
This is a reference to Mordechai and Esther (who were of the tribe of Benjamin), who divided the spoils of Haman, as it is written: “On that day, King Achashverosh gave Queen Esther the house of Haman” (Esther 8:1).
Since there were some regarding whom the Torah records only Jacob’s rebuke to them, one might perhaps think that they were not blessed; so the verse says, “every one according to his blessing he blessed them”—to tell us that each one was also blessed.
Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: “So said Rabbi Yochanan: Our father Jacob did not die.”
Asked Rav Nachman: “Was it for no reason that the eulogizers eulogized, the embalmers embalmed and the buriers buried?”
Replied Rabbi Yitzchak: “I am only citing a verse. It is written (Jeremiah 30:10): ‘And you, my servant Jacob, fear not, says the L‑rd, and do not tremble, O Israel. For behold, I shall save you from afar, and your progeny from the land of their captivity.’ The verse equates Jacob with his progeny: just as his progeny are alive, he too is alive.”
(Talmud, Taanit 5b)
Why did Joseph die before his brethren? Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] said: Because he embalmed his father. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Could I not preserve My righteous ones? Did I not say thus to him, ‘Fear not the worm Jacob (Isaiah 41:14)’?” The rabbis disagree: It was Jacob who charged them to embalm him, as it says, “His sons did unto him according to how he commanded them” (Genesis 50:12).
When Pharaoh appointed Joseph viceroy over Egypt, his ministers protested: “Would you place over us a slave whom his master bought for twenty pieces of silver!” He replied to them, “I discern in him royal characteristics.” They said to him, “In that case, he must be acquainted with the seventy languages.” That night, the angel Gabriel came to Joseph and taught him the seventy languages. . . . On the morrow, in whatever language Pharaoh conversed with Joseph, Joseph replied to him; but when Joseph spoke to Pharaoh in the holy tongue, Pharaoh did not understand what he said. Pharaoh asked Joseph to teach it to him; he taught it to him, but he could not learn it. Said Pharaoh to Joseph, “Swear to me that you will not reveal this”; and Joseph swore to him.
When Jacob died, Pharaoh refused to allow Joseph to bury him in the land of Canaan. When Joseph said to him, “My father made me swear, saying . . .” (Genesis 50:5), Pharaoh said, “Have your oath annulled!” Said Joseph to Pharaoh, “Should I also annul my oath regarding yourself?” So although it was displeasing to him, Pharaoh said: “Go up and bury your father, as he made you swear.”
(Talmud, Sotah 36b)
But is there a threshing floor for brambles? Rabbi Abbahu said: The verse teaches us that they surrounded Jacob’s coffin with crowns, like a threshing floor which is surrounded with a hedge of brambles, because the sons of Esau, of Ishmael and of Keturah also came. . . . They came to wage war [against the Israelites]; but when they saw Joseph’s crown hanging upon Jacob’s coffin, they all took their crowns and hung them upon his coffin. It was taught: thirty-six crowns were hung upon Jacob’s coffin.
(Talmud, Sotah 13a; Rashi)
From here is derived the law of seven (“shivah”) days of mourning after the dead.
When Jacob’s funeral procession reached the land of Canaan, Esau heard of this and came with many armed men to Hebron, and would not allow Joseph to bury his father in the Cave of Machpelah, saying: “There are eight burial places in the Cave; already buried there are Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. Jacob has buried Leah in his portion, and the one remaining plot belongs to me.”
Said Jacob’s sons to him: “You sold your portion to our father.”
Said Esau: “Granted that I sold my birthright, but did I sell my ordinary heir’s right?”
Said they: “Yes, you did sell it.”
Said he to them, “Show men the document of sale.”
Among those present was Chushim the son of Dan, who was deaf; so he asked them, “What is happening?” They said to him, “Esau is preventing the burial until Naphtali returns from the land of Egypt.”
Said Chushim: “Is my grandfather to lie there in disgrace until Naphtali returns from the land of Egypt?!” He took a sword and severed Esau ’s head, which rolled into the Cave of Machpelah and came to rest in Isaac’s lap, where it remains to this day. Thus it came to pass that “Esau’s head lies in the bosom of Isaac.”
(Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of Rebecca, who said: “Why should I be bereaved of you both in one day?” (Genesis 27:45). Although the death of the two of them did not occur on the same day, their burial took place on the same day.)
(Targum Yonatan; Talmud, Sotah 36b)
What did they see that made them fear him now? They saw that on their return from the burial of their father, Joseph went to the pit into which they had thrown him. (Joseph went there to recite the blessing a person is commanded to recite at the place at which a miracle was performed for him: “Blessed are You . . . who performed a miracle for me in this place”—see Talmud, Berachot 54a.)
Said Rabbi Il’a in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon: A person is allowed to lie for the sake of peace, as it is written: “They sent word urgently to Joseph, saying: Your father commanded before he died, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph . . .’”
(Jacob did not, in fact, say this, for he did not suspect Joseph of revenge.)
(Talmud, Yevamot 65b; Rashi)
He wept that they had suspected him of this.
He said to them: If ten candles were unable to extinguish one candle, could one candle extinguish ten?
(Talmud, Megillah 16b)
Joseph was saying: You did me an evil which turned out for the good; if I wished to avenge myself on you, I too would have to do the same. But this I cannot do, for only G‑d can do so . . .
(The Ostrovtzer Rebbe)
The lifespans of six pairs were equal: Rebecca and Kohath (both lived 133 years), Levi and Amram (137), Joseph and Joshua (110), Samuel and Solomon (52), Moses and Hillel the Elder (120), Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva (120).
Why did Joseph die before his brothers? Because he assumed airs of authority. But did not Rabbi [Judah HaNassi] say to Rabban Gamliel, “Rule high-handedly, and sow terror in your disciples?” This is to be a leader’s public behavior, but not his private behavior.
(Talmud (manuscript), Berachot 55a)
The children of Israel were given this sign: whoever comes and says pakod yifkod (“surely remember”) is their true redeemer.
The Egyptians placed Joseph in an iron coffin and submerged it in the Nile, so that its waters should be blessed.
(Talmud, Sotah 13a)