Running With The Weight Of Gold — Letters to a young man
12: The Death of Joseph, The Passing of an Era
Jerusalem — Sunday 23 December 2019
Dear D –
This week’s Torah portion (Genesis 47:28–50:26) closes the Book of Genesis, ending with the death of Joseph. The end of Genesis is the end of the story of the family of Abraham. One of my teachers — the man I refer to as my “Rebbe,” my personal Torah guide — Rabbi David Silber (not related) observes, people ask why the stories in the Book of Genesis are interrupted by genealogies, when they really just want to get on with the narrative. The whole point, says Rabbi Silber, is that the Book of Genesis is a book of genealogies, illuminated and bound together by the stories, forming a coherent narrative which is not merely instructive in itself, but provides the key to what comes later; a psychological and spiritual DNA for us to understand later persons and events.
Chapter 48 opens with Jacob on his death-bed, where Joseph has been called to his side. Joseph enters, bringing his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim, and Jacob makes a dramatic admission (48:7.) “… when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road… and I buried her there on the road to Ephrat, which is Bethlehem…”
The expression “Rachel died on me” is good colloquial English; in the Biblical Hebrew it is more properly read as “Rachel died — and it was on me” meaning, “it was my fault.” Remember that Jacob, after years of toiling for his father-in-law Laban, packs up his family and runs away. Laban catches up to them and takes Jacob to task. “And,” he rages at Jacob (31:30) “you stole my gods!” The gods are the Teraphim, common household gods in the ancient Near East; they were stone tokens that also served as deeds of ownership. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel had made off with them. Jacob shouts at Laban (31:32) “With whomever you find your gods, let that person not live!” Jacob unwittingly calls for the death of his beloved wife. The curse comes true when Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin.
On his deathbed, Jacob finally unburdens himself, acknowledging to Joseph that he, Jacob, is to blame for the death of Joseph’s mother.
In the next instant, Jacob sees Joseph’s sons. “Who are these?” he asks (48:8.) Jacob has just told Joseph that Joseph’s sons are to be considered Jacob’s own. Now, looking directly at the boys, Jacob can’t remember who they are — a heartrending picture of the mind slipping in old age. Josephs tells Jacob who they are, and Jacob reaches out his hands to bless them.
Josephs positions his sons, the older — Manasseh — on his left, Ephraim on his right, so that they will be guided to Jacob’s right and left hands, respectively. Joseph intends the greater blessing, that of the right hand, for his firstborn Manasseh. But Jacob crosses his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, the left on Manasseh. Joseph objects, but Jacob (48:14) “guided his hands with intelligence.” He knew what he was doing.
Joseph gave his sons names freighted with meaning. His firstborn is named Manasseh, from the Hebrew root meaning forgetfulness. Because, says Joseph (41:50–52) “God has made me forget all my hardship and my father’s house,” and Ephraim — from the root meaning fruitful — because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Jacob understands the names of Joseph’s sons. Jacob at last acknowledges his own failures as a husband and as a parent; now he teaches Joseph that we can not undo our past. God does us no favors if God helps us to forget. Forgetfulness is for those too weak to face life. For all the rest of us, no matter how dreadful, how difficult — no matter that it is a task we may never fully accomplish in our lifetime — we must face our past. Continually. We can thrust our past out of our mind over and over, but like a hungry cat, it keeps coming back. It will find its way back in no matter how securely we bar the door against it.
This one, says Jacob — Ephraim, the one who knows and acknowledges that his life comprises both triumph and suffering — this one shall be first. As Judah took on the role of the leader, setting aside Reuben the firstborn, Ephraim has the capacity to lead. Manasseh still has work to do. His body was born and raised in Egypt, but his soul agonizes in a land he has never seen, in a past that was not his own — and from which he nonetheless can never free himself.
Jacob is about to gather all his sons together and bless each of them (chapter 49). Unlike the prior generations where the blessing and the covenant passed to one son only, each of Jacob’s sons will inherit. Each one will bear the continuity of the family, and of the blessing and covenant of Abraham. The Torah is establishing a clear program of a social structure based, not on equality, but on equitableness. To call people “equal” risks invoking false assumptions. People are not the same. From the Torah’s perspective we can’t be the same, because God creates each of us for a unique purpose. Jacob knows that some of his sons are smarter than the others, some stronger — and that some are more prone to violence, and some more devious. No matter. Each of them has a role to play. And we each play our role best when we learn to play together, supporting and assisting — correcting and criticizing and sometimes even opposing one another. The greatest actor in the world can’t play Hamlet if there is no one else on the stage.
This is Jacob’s final lesson to Joseph. Jacob’s admission about Rachel’s death frees Joseph from the last bits of unresolved resentment over his past. Jacob’s lesson about embracing our past, with all its pains and troubles, propels Joseph forward to fully accomplish his task as the leader of what will, in the Book of Exodus, become a nation.
It is fascinating to note that God never speaks to Joseph. God has spoken to all the male protagonists in the Torah, from Adam through to Jacob, and to some of the women. Now, when the family is in danger of being dispersed, of never returning to the land of God’s promise, God is out of the picture. We need to learn to do for ourselves. That was ultimately the success of Jacob — his doing for himself, even as God helped. And it is certainly the message of Joseph’s whole existence.
Before we close, allow me to look at what must be the single most poignant verse in the Torah.
Immediately before blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, (48:11) Jacob says to Joseph, “I did not pray that I would see your face — and behold, now God has even shown me your children!”
This is translated and interpreted to mean that Jacob had despaired of ever seeing Joseph again. That after Joseph disappeared, Jacob gave up hope. But I believe the deeper meaning — the true meaning — comes from a straight literal reading: I did not pray to see your face.
When Jacob marries Leah, she immediately goes into a frenzy of childbearing. But Jacob’s beloved Rachel is having difficulty conceiving; after Leah gives birth to her fourth son, Rachel approaches Jacob (30:1–3) and begs him, “Give me children; if not, I am dead.” Jacob flies into a rage. “Am I in God’s place — God, who has withheld from you the fruit of your womb?!” A shocking response from the man who loved her at first sight.
When Isaac married Rebecca (25:19–22) he saw that she was having difficulty conceiving. Unasked, Isaac prayed fervently to God for Rebecca to conceive. His prayer was answered, and the result was the twins Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the son who came into this world as the result of prayer. And yet when his beloved wife begs him to intercede on her behalf, he not only refuses to pray — he attacks her and berates her. “I have four sons already!” Jacob seems to be saying. “If you can’t have children, it’s your own problem!” How dramatically our feelings change when we have to deal with the pressures of day to day life! We marry for love — but then we have to figure out how to earn a living. We marry for romance, but then we must also deal with our spouse’s deepest fears, with their all too human weaknesses.
I did not pray to see your face, Jacob admits to Joseph. I did not pray for you to be born — not as my father prayed for me. And yet you came into the world. Not only did you come, but you have sons of your own and now they stand before me!
Jacob is overwhelmed by God’s unwarranted generosity, by this staggering show of grace. At the end of Jacob’s days, his life comes together. However brief his happiness, it is complete. Jacob is able to recognize and acknowledge and unburden himself of his own guilt, and to acknowledge the abundance of God’s graciousness to him personally. In so doing, he teaches Joseph how to be a man in the world.
May God grant us the wisdom not just to learn these lessons, but to feel how urgent they are. Let us not wait until our last hour. There is much at stake.
Yours for a better world –