- Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh. (48:1-20)
- Jacob's twelve sons gather around his deathbed, and each receives an evaluation and a prediction of his future. (49:1-33)
- Joseph mourns his father's death and has Jacob embalmed. Jacob is buried in Hebron in the cave of the field of the Machpelah in the land of Canaan. (50:1-14)
- Joseph assures his concerned brothers that he has forgiven them and promises to care for them and their families. (50:15-21)
- Just before he dies, Joseph tells his brothers that God will return them to the Land that God promised to the patriarchs. The Children of Israel promise Joseph that they will take his bones with them when they leave Egypt. (50:22-26)
Jacob is 147 years old. He is on his deathbed. While we have had hints of his gift of prophesy in previous parshat, in this parsha it is front and center. After extracting an oath from Joseph that he be buried in the tomb of Machpelah in Eretz Yisrael with his forebears, Jacob essentially adopts Joseph’s 2 sons as his own and blesses them. He then proceeds to bless his 11 other sons individually. These are mixed blessings to say the least. In fact, in several cases, they read more like admonitions than blessings! They include cryptic prophesies regarding the roles and struggles of the tribes, each tribe sired by a different son, long into the future. He predicts his descendants will grow from a family into a collection of related tribes and finally, after a long and trying exile, into a unified nation. He predicts the end of days, the most direct reference to a messianic era thus far in Torah, but his power of prophesy fails him when he attempts to reveal when it will actually occur.
Jacob is unique among our patriarchs. We first meet father Abraham at age 75 and of his 175 years the Torah chronicles only approximately 1/3 of his life. Isaac is the least known, but Torah focuses closely on Jacob from his unique birth until his death in this, the final and shortest Genesis parsha. Of the 12 parshat in Genesis, Jacob is a main protagonist in 7 of the 10 that are concerned with our patriarchs. He is the only patriarch to father only Jews and of the 3, his life is the most troubled and filled with personal tragedy. In fact his happiest most trouble free days were the last 17 years of his life spent in exile in Egypt.
The birthright of the 1st son is an important motif throughout Tanakh. In Vayechi, more in the breach than its observance, it becomes a consuming theme. In earlier parshat Jacob famously tricked Esau out of his birthright and unique blessing. On his deathbed he denies both Reuben and Manasseh their 1st born status and variously confers it on Ephraim, Joseph and Judah. Jacob’s own life & his deathbed blessings personify this ironic biblical pattern. Despite the institutionalized primacy of the 1st born, neither Abel, nor any of the patriarchs, nor Jacob’s favored off springs, nor Moses, nor Solomon were 1st borns. Right up to the end, by crossing his hands to bless Joseph’s sons, Jacob displays the guile he used to achieve his own 1st born status at Esau’s expense, confirming perhaps that he is the most complex personality among our Torah heroes.
In many ways his life is a metaphor and microcosm of the entire historic experience of the Jewish people, especially for American Jews. This too is dramatized in Vayechi. Certainly, the most poignant and puzzling moment in the parsha, perhaps in all of Genesis, is when Jacob apparently fails to recognize Ephraim & Manasseh. He declares to Joseph, “And now your 2 sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before [emphasis mine] my coming to you in Egypt shall be mine!” (Genesis 48:5). Only a few lines later “Israel saw Joseph’s sons and said, ‘Who are these?’” (Genesis 48:8) What is the reader to make of this? The image conjured up in our minds’ eye is of an old man on his deathbed blessing 2 small boys. In fact, this is exactly how most of the great Renaissance paintings of this drama depict it. But these are not 2 small boys. They are grown men! In dress and appearance they look exactly like Egyptian aristocracy! Based on the chronology of earlier parshat, Manasseh is at least in his 30s and Jacob has been interacting with them for the last 17 years! For me this is more like a Chasidic zaida seeing his adult grandsons in muscle shirts with fresh tattoos decorating their forearms. He knows who they are, but he cannot believe this is what they have become. For Jacob, his adoption of these men as his own and his special blessings represent his dying struggle against the assimilation of his descendants, as does his demand to be buried in Eretz Yisrael.
Jacob’s entire life has been 1 long unmitigated struggle in a hostile world until he settles in the wealthiest, most advanced and most decadent society of his age. Here he finally finds peace, acceptance, recognition, happiness and prosperity. But there is a price to pay as he also acknowledges the threat of assimilation and his final acts, as he is dying, is to reinforce the unique holy mission of the nation he fathered and its eternal connection to its homeland, Eretz Yisrael.