01/05/2012 12:35 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Parshat Vayechi: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, God could not be reached for comment. Read the full text of Parshat Vayechi with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Jacob lives in Egypt for 17 years. Jacob lives for 147 years.

Israel calls his favorite son to his side, saying, "Joseph, if I've found favor in your eyes, swear that you will not allow me to be buried in Egypt. Carry me out of Egypt. Bury me with my fathers."

"I'll do this," Joseph says.

"Swear it."

"I swear."

And Jacob bows before his son.

Later, after Joseph hears Jacob's sickness is worsening, he brings his sons to their grandfather to be blessed.

Israel gathers himself, sits up on the bed and recounts the visions and blessings of his life: "Your sons, who were born here before I arrived, shall be counted as my own. Bring them here so that I may bless them."

Ephraim and Menasseh approach Jacob.

"From whom were these boys born?" Jacob asks Joseph, who immediately produces marriage certificates. Satisfied, Jacob calls the boys forward. But he cannot see. His vision is heavy. He hugs and kisses his grandsons: "I never thought I'd see your face, Joseph, but God has shown me your children!"

Joseph places Ephraim to Israel's left. He places Menasseh, the first born, to Israel's right, for the blessings of the right side belong to the first born. Nevertheless, Israel reaches for Ephraim with his right hand, and for Menasseh with his left. Not because his eyesight is dim. He does this with intention and knowledge.

"It's not right, father!" Joseph says, lifting Jacob's hands for him.

"No! I know who is the firstborn. Both boys will become great nations, but the younger will be greater. And his children's name shall precede them everywhere they go." And Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menasseh that all the Children of Israel will forever be blessed in their names.

"I'm going to die, Joseph. God is with you. You will be brought back to Canaan. And I'm giving you more than all your brothers."

Restless Farewell

With this, Jacob calls the rest of his sons to gather 'round, blessing each of them:

"Reuben, my firstborn, my strength. You coulda had it all. Privilege and priesthood. But you were reckless. You slept with my wife. You drove the Divine Presence from my bed. And so, you will not be privileged."

Not the most bless-ful start, but Jacob has many more sons.

"Simeon and Levi. Such scoundrels. You plotted against Joseph. You murdered all of Shechem. Your descendants will challenge Moses. Let my name not be associated with such a rebellion! I curse your wrath. I curse your rage. I will scatter you throughout the land of Israel."

And Judah can't take it. He knows his curse will be worse. He silently slips toward the exit.

"Judah! You are not like them! You will lead all of your brothers. You will conquer your enemies. Our beloved kings will descend from you. You repented for your part in the plot against Joseph. You did not kill Tamar. The Children of Israel will have peace and security because of your descendants. And you will retain leadership until the Messiah should finally show a face. In your territory, wine will flow like a river down a mountain. Your people will be joyous and well."

And to the others:

"Zebulun will live on the coast and control the port. Issachar, my son, my scholar. Your territory will be fertile and you will not have to work hard. This way, you can study to your heart's content. This will be your service to the rest of my people. Dan will be vengeful when the time is right, and he will be submissive when it is time to seek salvation from God. Gad, your people will be expert soldiers. Asher, your land will be dense with delicacies. Naphtali, your land will bear fruit with ease. And your people will give thanks."

Jacob pauses. For dramatic effect or overcome with love -- it is unclear: "Joseph, my sons of sons. Your brothers were bitter and violent. Despite this, you became powerful. And this came from God. God is in your heart. God blesses you with the blessings of the heights and the depths, of the mothers and the fathers. I received more blessings than my fathers. May you, who were separated from your brothers, merit this too."

"And Benjamin," Jacob says, "your descendants will be like wolves. They will cultivate the earth for righteousness."

And Jacob blesses all of his sons, even the ones he rebuked. And he continues: "I will be gathered in to my people. I will die. My soul will join my people. Bury me in the cave with my fathers and mothers and my wife, Leah. The cave is still ours." And Jacob gathers his legs into the bed, breathes a breath and departs.

Let Me Die In My Footsteps

Joseph falls on his father's face, weeping and kissing him. He commands his servants to embalm Jacob. This takes 40 days. All of Egypt mourns Jacob's passing for a total of 70 days. He is considered a national treasure. Joseph fears Pharaoh will not let him fulfill his father's request to be buried in Canaan.

"Pharaoh," Joseph says, "I'm bound by an oath to my father that I will bury him in Canaan."

"Ha! So go ask your Sages to release you from this oath," Pharaoh responds.

"Fair enough. I'll ask them then to release me from an oath I once made to you."

"What oath is that?"

"You know," Joseph says. "Shall I clarify in my native tongue?"

And a wave of shame hits Pharaoh, for he cannot understand Hebrew, yet the Egyptian king is supposed to know all the languages of the world. Joseph has him.

"Very well," Pharaoh says. "Go bury your father, as he had you swear."

So Joseph hits the road and his brothers follow. And all the officers and ministers and servants of Egypt follow them. After crossing the Jordan River, the mourners give the greatest eulogy of any era. The intensity is immense -- so immense that the locals named that place Abel-mizraim, the "Mourning of Egypt."

Jacob's sons do exactly what their father asked of them. Only the sons carry his coffin into Canaan, and only they bury him.

And everyone returns to Egypt.

Lay Down, My Dear Brother

In Joseph, the brothers see an immediate change. He no longer eats with them, and the brothers assume the worst -- the overdue revenge -- is ahead. So they send a messenger to Joseph, asking again for forgiveness.

And Joseph weeps hearing this. He tells them: "Brothers! Do not be afraid. God wants only good things for you. Should I do something to counter God? I will provide for you and our children. Be comforted." And, indeed, their hearts are comforted.

Joseph lives in Egypt. Joseph lives 110 years. He lives to see great-great grandchildren.

He calls his brothers 'round: "I will die soon. God will not forget you. He will take you out of this land and bring you to the place promised to our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And you will take my bones out of here when the time comes."

The brothers swear. Joseph lives 110 years. He is embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Questions for Reflection

Why is this portion called Vayechi ("And he lived") when it's really about the deaths of Jacob and Joseph?

Why does Jacob bless Joseph's children in the seemingly wrong order?

Why does Joseph receive an extra portion from his father? And what exactly does that mean?

Why does Jacob rebuke some of his sons so harshly while praising others, given that all of them sinned and repented?

What does Benjamin's blessing mean?

Why did all of Egypt mourn the passing of Jacob? And why is Jacob embalmed?

Why does Pharaoh permit Joseph to bury his father outside of Egypt, adding "as he had you swear"?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: