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Vayechi (and he lived)

Genesis 47:28 to 50:26, 1 Kings 2:1-12


Verse 48:4 has kahal goyim, an assembly of nations. (Genesis 35:11 also.) Perhaps Ya'akov misunderstands this phrase. We know it is fulfilled in God's work to make Israel not just a nation that accepts him as King, but a commonwealth of many nations that all have allegience to Israel's King, Adonai. But perhaps Ya'akov conisders the adpotion of Yosef's two half-Egyptian sons as all there is to this phrase.

In 48:5 and 48:22 Ya'akov transfers the double-portion of the firstborn from the unfaithful Reuven to Yosef's two children. Yosef becomes the "favored first born" with two of his sons counting as Ya'akov's. This is pointed out in 1st Chronicles 5:1-2. It means Rachel's eldest child supplants Leah's as firstborn. But Yehudah is promised preeminence.

In verse 48:16, Ya'akov calls God ha'malach ha'go-ayl o-tee mee-kol ra, "the angel/messenger who has redeemed me from all evil". Each part of this phrase is not surprising. In Ya'akov's direct experience, God has acted primarily as a messenger. Also, God redeemed Ya'akov from evil (with Lavan, Esav, and the perceived loss of Yosef). But the purposeful contrast is surprising, since normally a messenger does not also redeem.

Notice in verse 49:1 that these blessings are for the acharit-hayamim ("the last days"). Normally this phrase refers to eschatological events, but in this case it appears to mean "not this Egyptian era, but the next era".

Note Levi's curse of being scattered results in the Levitical cities. The tribe of Shimon becomes absorbed into Yehudah. (By tradition Shimon becomes teachers and scribes scattered through Israel.)

In verse 47:31 Ya'akov finally bows to Yosef, as Yosef dreamed so long ago.

The tribe of Dan has the last of the judges (Shimshon).

Yosef deliberately buries his father in the wrong place! Ya'akov asked to be buried in the cave at Machpelah. But in verse 50:5 we read that Yosef will bury him in a place that Ya'akov himself kariti ("dug" or "bought"). And in Acts 7:15-16 we read that Ya'akov was buried in Shechem (at a place purchased from Chamor, not at Hevron in a cave purchased from Efron the Hittite). So why is the traditional Jewish teaching that Ya'akov was buried in the cave at Machpelah? Note that Shechem was in the territority of the northern kingdom of Yisrael, while Hevron was in the territory of the southern kingdom of Yehudah; Ariel ben-Lyman suggests that both kingdoms wanted to claim the place of Ya'akov's burial within their borders, and the story told by the kingdom of Yehudah "stuck".

Traditional Jewish Commentary

This is the only parasha that is setumah ("closed") because no space nine letters wide or one complete line high precedes it. The previous parasha, Vayigash ("drew near") really does draw close!

Notice Yosef had 17 years with his father as a child, and now has 17 years with his father as an adult who provides for his father.

Ya'akov knew that the request to return his body to the Promised Land would appear to Pharaoh as less-than-perfect loyalty to Egypt. So he had Yosef swear an oath, which would then allow Yosef to truthfully tell Pharaoh that the request was not his own idea and a binding obligatoin (verses 48:29-31 and 50:4-6).

Since earlier in Genesis there is no account of Ya'akov waging war against the Amorites (to match verse 48:22) the phrase "with my sword and bow" has been traditionally interpreted as "with the wealth from my labor" or even "with prayer", in reference to verse 33:19 when Ya'akov purchases property at Shechem.

The Tz'enah Ur'enah comments that Yisrael is derived from the word sharar ("dominion") and Yaakov from aykev ("heel"). The man is called Yisrael when his spirit is emphasized (as in 47:29 and approaching death), and Ya'akov when his body is emphasized (as with the need for food).

Not only do Yehudah and Yosef get the longest blessings, but they are the only sons that Ya'akov speaks to directly.

Reuven is called "unstable as water". His tribe is again chastized by Moshe (Deuteronomoy 33:6) Devorah (Judges 5:16), and eventuallly disappears when Moav occupies its land.

The word "oxen" (shor) in verse 49:6 may be a play on words referring to Shechem, son of Hamor. This is a bit of a stretch, but does fit the context well and provide historical truth to the sentence.

Naftali will obtain a spacious territory, suitable for a "hind let loose".

Efrayim does not become the most populous tribe (far from it! why not?) but Y'hoshua leads the capture of the promised land and in involved with miracles greater than those of Menashe's descendant, Gidon.

The tribe of Binyamin will produce Ehud (Judges 3) and King Sha'ul.

Yosef's grandchild Machir ("one who is sold") is named to recall Yosef's troubles. This child's descendents include the daughters of Tselofchad who inherit land (Numbers 36), just as through Yosef the sons of Israel were granted a permanent landholding (achuzah, in Gen 47:11) when the people around them were losing their land (Gen 47:19).

Tradition links Ya'akov's request "let my soul not enter their plot" (49:5) to his name not being mentioned in the lineages of Zimri descendant of Shimon (Numbers 25:14) and Korach descendant of Levi (Numbers 16:1)

Normally, the Hebrew grammatical construction "noun1 from noun2" means noun1 is more or greater than noun2. But in verse 49:12 it appears to not do so. Yehudah is prophesied to have such abundance that its people can afford to tie an ass to a vine of choice grapes (which the ass will eat) instead of a more normal tether, and they could afford to use wine like washing water. Thus their "eyes are dark from wine" and their "teeth are white from milk".

The tribe of Binyamin "preys like a wolf" with needing wives at the end of Judges, produces King Sha'ul whose wars claim the spoils of other nations, and produces Esther and Mordechai who divide the spoils of Haman.

In verse 49:33, the words for "drew his feet" (va'ye-esof) and "gathered to" (va'yay-asef) are both word-plays on Yosef's name.

The Egyptians would mourn a dead Pharaoh 72 days. Ya'akov is given almost the same honor. The Jewish custom of a week of mourning is established in verse 50:10.

Notice that the procession to the Promised Land does not take the direct route, but circles around by Goren Ha'Atad to cross the Jordan from the east. Even in death, Ya'akov is leading his family; his funeral procession shows them the way they will travel during the Exodus.

J. Feinberg notes that when Yosef dies he is placed in an aron ("ark, coffin"). Moses thus leads a carrying of two arks, not just one.

This week's Haftorah has King David's deathbed words to his son, Shlomo. Unlike Ya'akov, David is not a prophet and has no prophetic blessing to say. Instead he offers practical advice about faithfully ensuring his family's personal covenant with God, and ensuring the nation's political security through ruthlessly rewarding and punishing certain people.

What is "Shiloh" in verse 49:10?

Shiloh is where the tabernacle is set up and the land distributed by lot (Judges 18-19). The tabernacle remains there (1 Samuel 1-2) until David builds the fist Temple. Since Samuel operated out of Shiloh it is often interpreted as "the seat of both priestly and legislative law", a foreshadow of the messiah. In this case, verse 49:10 is saying Judah will get eternal kingship but not until the tabernacle of Shiloh is replaced. Alternately, because Shiloh is located in the territory of Ephraim the phrase could mean "until Yehudah will come to worship at Shiloh", meaning "until the northern and southern kingdoms are reunited."

The phrase ad kee yavo Sheey-loh might contain a scribal error blurring together the two words shay and lo ("tribute" and "to him"). Then the phrase would read "so that even tribute comes to him". But this alternative is a more modern idea.

But the most simple and literal translation is "until Shiloh comes." This is the most primary and prominent translation in Jewish literature, used by Rashi (citing Onkelos), Rambam, and others.

"This phrase alludes to the royal Messiah" -Genesis Rabbah 98.8

Rabbi Johanan said: "The world was created for the sake of the Messiah. What is the Messiah's name?" The school of Rabbi Shila said: "His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come" -Sanhedrin 98b

"Kings and rulers shall not cease from the house of Judah—until King Messiah comes." -Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

until Shiloh cometh; this alludes to the royal Messiah. and unto him shall the obedience (yikhath) of the people be: he will come and set on edge (makheth) the teeth of the nations of the world. -Midrash Rabbah

The next phrase is "and the obedience [or "gathering"] of peoples be his". The word "peoples" is ameem, not goyeem. But either implies people other than Israelites.