Parshat Vayechi - A Double Conclusion

  • Yeshiva Staff

Part I: Yosef and His Role Vis-a-Vis the Brothers in Light of the Berakhot, based upon a shiur by Rav Ariel Iram (Chipser).

Part II: The Meaning of Yaakov's Message to Dan - Relating the Berakhot to Subsequent Jewish History, by Rav Yitzchak Blau.

with an Introduction by Rav Ezra Bick.


Parashat Vayechi is both the conclusion of the individual conflict of Yosef and his brothers, and the conclusion of the wider story of the transformation of the story of individuals (avot) to one of the people (shevatim). The berakhot of Yaakov clearly reflect this latter theme in regard to many of the shevatim (Yehuda, Asher, Zevulun, Yosef, etc.). We, therefore, have split today's shiur into two. The first half examines Yosef and his role vis-a-vis the brothers (once again) in light of the different berakhot Yosef receives in the parasha. In order not to ignore the special character of Vayechi, however, the second half discusses a particularly difficult section of the berakhot and explains it in relation to subsequent Jewish history. This serves as an example of what must be done for each of the berakhot. - Ezra Bick

The following shiur is a summarized adaptation of one by Rav Ariel Iram (Chipser).

The narrative of the previous parshiot takes place within the framework of a contest between Yosef and his brothers. At the end of this story, Yosef is clearly the effective leader, if by no other reason than his political position in Egypt. By analyzing the berakhot in the parasha, we can gain a fuller understanding of the final resolution of this contest.

Yaakov blesses Yosef: "His bow dwelled in strength and his arms were made strong ... by the God of your father Who shall help you and by Sha-kai Who shall bless you, the blessings of heaven above and the blessings of the depths below, the blessings of breasts and womb."

This berakha echoes exactly half of the blessing of Yitzchak to Yaakov. On the one hand, "God shall give you from the dew of the heaven and from the riches of the land, and much grain and wine;" and, on the other, "Peoples shall serve you and nations shall bow down to you, be a lord over your brothers and your mother's sons shall bow down to you." In other words, Yitzchak blessed Yaakov with prosperity and fruitfulness, and with power and dominion. If we compare Yaakov's blessing to Yosef with that given to Yehuda ("your father's sons shall bow down to you"), it seems clear that Yaakov has split his own berakha into two - prosperity and fruitfulness to Yosef, power and kingship to Yehuda. What's more, the blessing of Yosef includes not only fruitfulness of the land, but also his own progeny - "the blessings of breast and womb." (This is even more strongly emphasized in Moshe's berakhot before his death, which in the case of Yosef closely follow the verse from Yaakov's berakha which was quoted above.)

This is seen even more clearly in the earlier, private berakha given to Yosef (and his children) by Yaakov. Yosef is composed of two tribes, Efraim and Menashe. Menashe's name signifies weakness and forgetfulness, whereas Efraim's symbolizes, like Yosef's own name ("May God add to me another son"), fruitfulness and plenitude - "For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction." Yaakov (48:3) calls Yosef and says to him: "Kel Sha-kai appeared to me in Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me. And He said to me, I am going to cause you to be fruitful and multiply you and make of you a multitude of peoples ..." This is a quote of God's speech to Yaakov in Beit-El (35:11-12), with one excision, "... and kings shall come forth from your loins." Yaakov cites the berakha (leaving out the royalty, which belongs to Yehuda) in order to introduce his adoption of Efraim and Menashe as tribes. The fruitfulness and multiplication promised by God has been delayed by the death of Rachel. Efraim and Menashe fulfill the fruitfulness of God's blessing to Yaakov. Yosef has inherited Rachel's mission to bear the fruit of Yaakov and that is why Efraim and Menashe are included as tribes. When Yaakov blesses Efraim and Menashe - "My name and the name of my fathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, shall be called over them" - he adds "and they shall spawn into a multitude in the midst of the earth."

(This also explains the switching of Yaakov's hands. Since the essence of the berakha is plenitude, Efraim, whose name reflects this principle, takes precedence over Menashe. The right hand gives the berakha with largesse, the left with measure. Yaakov explains the preference by saying, "I know, my son, I know, he too shall be a people and he too shall grow, but his younger brother shall grow greater and HIS SEED SHALL BECOME A MULTITUDE OF NATIONS.")

The life of Yosef exemplifies the principle of plenitude and prosperity. Wherever Yosef is (after he reaches Egypt), we find a multiplication of prosperity, whether the house of Potifar (39:4-6), the jail (39:23), or finally the house and kingdom of Par'o. Yosef is "the provider for all the land" (42:6). Finally, and most importantly, he is the provider for his father's house. Yosef's recognition and acceptance that this is his role, as he says to his brothers, "for God has sent me before you as sustenance," is an integral part of the reconciliation with his family. After Yaakov's death, Yosef reiterates this role, "I shall provide for you and your children" (50:21). When the brothers offer to be his slaves, he rejects it. Yosef has accepted the role of the berakha of Yaakov - sustenance, plenitude, support of life. The role of kingship, power and dominion is given to Yehuda, and Yosef accepts that.

It is worth noting that in all cases when Yosef causes a burst of prosperity in a house, he acts under the dominion of someone else. The "king" is not Yosef, but rather Potifar, the warden of the jail, or Par'o. This apparently is the proper division. Yosef is able to fulfill his destiny, to bring about plenitude and prosperity, when he acts beside a "Yehuda" who fulfills the role of king. The partnership of the two, each in his own role, is what sets the stage for the complete fulfillment of the berakha of Yaakov.

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Some other questions to ponder.

1. Yosef's distinction from the other brothers was designated "bekhora" by Rav Leibtag in last year's shiur. This is primarily exemplified by the double-shevet character of Yosef - he literally gets two portions, like a bekhor, in everything. This year's shiur explained this nature of Yosef somewhat differently. Another distinction of Yosef was in the special portion of Shekhem given to him by Yaakov (48:22) "beyond [what is given to] your brothers." What is the significance of this? Why Shekhem? What does this have to do either with "bekhora" or with "plenitude?"

2. A midrashic connection of Yosef to Shekhem worth thinking about is the following. A midrash states that Osnat, the wife of Yosef and the mother of Efraim and Menashe, was the daughter of Dina and Shekhem ben Chamor, born of the rape. This sounds very meaningful - but I am not sure what it means. Any suggestions?

3. Combining this week's shiur with last week's implies that Yosef accepted his role as provider for the brothers, but did not forget that they had not intended that. Rav Bin-Nun's explanation for Yosef's behavior in Miketz and Vayigash was also based on a distinction between what Yosef was trying to do, and what the actual meaning of the parshiot is (he accepts the basic point that it is about reconciliation and teshuva). It appears that the gap between intention and outcome is an important theme here. Why does the Torah see that as a crucial element in the story of the genesis of the Jewish people?

4. What about Yaakov? What is his reaction to the story of Yosef and his brothers? (Some mefarshim believe that Yaakov never knew the real story.) Does Vayechi help us answer this question?


Part 2 of this week's parasha presentation:


The Meaning of Yaakov's Message to Dan

by Rav Yitzchak Blau

No biblical deathbed scene creates more drama than Yaakov's final message to his children. While the drama of the scene is clear, the precise meaning of Yaakov's words proves more enigmatic. The Abarbanel lists four possible approaches to understanding Yaakov's message:

1) He reproves his children for their errors.
2) He blesses them for the future.
3) He states prophecy regarding their future.
4) He delineates their portion in the holy land.

Different parts of the messages to certain children clearly fit into the above categories. Reuven, Shimon and Levi receive tokhacha, Yehuda hears a prediction regarding the duration of his monarchy, Yosef receives a blessing and Asher apparently discovers the nature of his portion in Israel. Dan, on the other hand, receives a more puzzling message difficult to comprehend or categorize.

Let us investigate the pesukim and list the difficulties. The pesukim (Bereishit 49: 16-18) read as follows:

"Dan will judge his people as one of the tribes of Israel."
"Dan will be like a snake on the road, a serpent on the way, who bites the foot of the horse and the rider falls backwards."
"For your salvation I hope. Hashem."

Pasuk 16 - In what sense will Dan judge his people? Why will this judging be "as one of the tribes of Israel?" Pasuk 17 - What does the comparison to a snake biting a horse's foot and toppling the rider say about Dan? Pasuk 18 - Why does Yaakov interject a prayer at the closing of the message?

When a mefaresh approaches this problem, he must determine which other biblical texts exist regarding Dan that might help elucidate our text. As a collective, the tribe of Dan receives notable mention on three occasions.

1) They are "me'assef le-kol ha-machanot" or the last tribe in the travel procession.
2) They take part in "pesel Micha" (Shoftim 18).
3) Their portion in Israel lies on one of the borders.

The verses could also refer to an individual member of the tribe. Dan's noteworthy individuals include Oholiav, who helped Betzalel construct the mishkan; Shlomit bat Divri, mother of the megadef, and Shimshon. Among the three individuals mentioned, Tanakh clearly portrays Shimshon as the most significant of the three by far.

With this background in mind, let us return to Yaakov's message. The snake imagery seems to revolve around a battle. This certainly fits in with Shimshon who fought the Pelishtim. It also works nicely with Dan as the last tribe in the order of traveling. When any nation attacked from the rear, Dan represented the first line of defense. Most mefarshim employ one of these two models to explain the entire section. Radak, Rashi and Ramban view the passage as referring to Shimshon. Rashbam and Malbim see it in terms of Dan's role as the last tribe to travel.

We can now turn to the individual pesukim. In what sense does Dan judge the people? Radak simply refers to Shimshon's role as a shofet. Rashi and Rambam agree that the verse speaks of Shimshon but translate "yadin" in a different way. They argue that "yadin" means "will take vengeance" (as in Devarim 32:36 and Tehillim 110:6) and not "will judge." According to this interpretation, the pasuk refers to Shimshon taking vengeance on the Pelishtim on behalf of the people. Perhaps they disagree with Radak because the biblical account of Shimshon does not include any judging in the judicial sense. Rashbam, who sees the passage as referring to Dan as a collective, agrees with Rashi's and Ramban's translation of "yadin."

How does Dan judge "ke-echad shivtei yisrael?" Most mefarshim explain that Dan either judges or takes vengeance on behalf of the entire people as one. In other words, the emphasis on the individual qualities of a tribe in the berakhot of Yaakov are not due to divisiveness but in order to bring to the unified whole the qualities of the individual part. Rashi mentions the possibility that "ke-echad" means as the singular tribe of Israel, a reference to Yehuda. A potential source for such a parallel would be Moshe's comparing Dan to a "gur aryeh" (Devarim 33:22), the same phrase Yaakov employs to describe Yehuda (49:9). Here, the emphasis is on equating the role of the vanguard, a snake, with the more glorious role of Yehuda. In any case, interpretation of this problem at the end of the first pasuk remains similar whether one views it in terms of collective Dan or Shimshon.

Why does Yaakov compare Dan to a snake biting the horse and, thereby, overturning the rider? Malbim explains that the quickest part of an army and the part that would attack the camp first would be the horsemen. Dan, as the "me'assef le-kol ha- machanot," would have to defend against the cavalry. Malbim agrees with Rashbam that the passage refers to Dan's role as an entire tribe and not to an individual member of Dan.

If we turn to the view that Yaakov speaks about Shimshon, the imagery of the something below overturning a larger structure has great resonance. Rashi sees the image as referring to Shimshon toppling the pillars and collapsing the Pelishtim temple. If so, the snake parallel recedes into the background and the key to the image consists of a large structure toppled from below.

On the other hand, many mefarshim think that Shimshon somehow resembles a snake. Radak explains that Shimshon worked alone as does the snake. Ramban similarly states that Shimshon engaged in guerrilla warfare in the manner of a snake. The midrash in Bereishit Rabba (cited by Rabbenu Bachya) lists many other parallels between Shimshon and a snake.

We now come to the last pasuk. Why does Yaakov interject a tefila? As both approaches center around a battle, Yaakov may be praying on behalf of Dan. Alternatively, Yaakov may be citing a tefila to be recited by Dan. Rashi views this verse as the prayer of Shimshon. Ibn Ezra mentions the possibility that there is an understood word "va-yomer" prior to "li-yeshuatkha." Such a view agrees with Rashi that Yaakov cites the future words of Dan.

If we understand the whole passage as referring to Shimshon, another option emerges for the last pasuk. Yaakov emphasizes the limitations of Shimshon's salvation when contrasted with the yeshua of Hashem. Having foreseen what happens when a Shimshon provides aid, Yaakov turns to Hashem to ask for His help. Thus, Ramban and Netziv explain that Shimshon's salvation was temporary. Yaakov pleads with God to provide a more permanent solution. Da'at Zekenim offers the possibility that Shimshon expresses arrogance in his power and fails to offer credit to God. Therefore, Yaakov emphasizes the turn toward God for succor. This creates an ambivalent picture. Although Yaakov is blessing Dan, and, as we saw in the interpretation of "one of the tribes of Israel," is emphasizing the importance of Dan's contribution to the "klal," he is simultaneously warning against glorifying the role of the individual hero, who all too often assumes semi-divine stature.

Rashbam vehemently rejects the Shimshon approach, arguing that Yaakov would not focus on a single individual. However, as we have seen, the snake imagery may have more resonance if Yaakov speaks about Shimshon. As usual, the reader must carefully avoid assuming that the pashtanim have a monopoly on the peshat. The midrashic Shimshon view offers some advantages. In any case, we have seen how a broader employment of Tanakh can help illuminate a difficult passage.



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