A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Va-y'hi 5763
Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
December 21, 2002 16 Tevet 5763
The death of a parent is, for most of us, a profound loss. When we lose our mother or our father, we lose the people who have known us most deeply from the very inception of our lives. For many of us, we lose the people who have been our most ardent advocates, our biggest fans, our most loyal supporters. We lose the anchor in our lives, the people who have nurtured and loved us, counseled and guided us through problems small and large. When a parent dies — though we may have love from partners, children and friends — the special love, the intense love of that parent dies with him or her. And we are left bereft.
But individual children in a family experience that loss in different ways. And the death causes us to remember different poignant moments in our lives, connected to our mother or father.
In our parashah, the children of Jacob lose their father. After a long and complex life, Jacob dies in Egypt, having been reunited with his beloved son Joseph, and even blessing Joseph's sons. When Jacob dies, Joseph grieves deeply, and we can assume that his other children do so as well, but their more salient emotion is fear, as the Torah tells us (Genesis 50:15): "When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, 'What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us... ?'" Midrash Tanhuma (Va—Yehi 17) fleshes out their fear:
"What did they see that made them afraid? As they were returning from burying their father, they saw that Joseph turned off the road and went to look at the pit into which his brothers had cast him. Upon seeing this, they said, 'He still bears a grudge in his heart. Now that our father is dead, he will make his hatred of us felt.' But in fact Joseph's motive was a pious one — he wanted to utter a blessing for the miracle wrought for him in that place."
As the midrash sees it, Jacob's death conjures up for the brothers a reminder of their cruelty towards Joseph and their father. For Joseph, Jacob's death and his burial in Canaan are an occasion to remember how Joseph miraculously moved from the pit in Canaan to attaining the second highest position in Egypt next to Pharaoh. While we might be inclined to question Joseph's "pious" motives at that moment, the midrash does point out how strikingly different Joseph's reaction and his brothers' reactions are to Jacob's death. The brothers are flooded with memories of their mistreatment of Joseph and their father. They have lived for decades with this memory and the secret they withheld from their father. It has overshadowed the rest of their lives. Whereas Joseph, in glancing at the past, is flooded with different memories — of the love his father showered on him in his childhood, including Jacob's gift of the "many colored" coat; of his childhood dreams of ruling over his father and brothers, and how they really did come true; of the hatred of his brothers, which — as an adolescent — he couldn't comprehend; of being in Potiphar's house, in jail, interpreting dreams, and then helping to rule the land of Egypt.
For us, as for Joseph and his brothers, the death of a parent leaves us with a tremendous loss. But it also causes us to think about poignant (and sometimes painful) moments in our lives, often shared with our parents — or perhaps scarred by their absence. Because we are all individuals, our memories will often be markedly different from our siblings', but we hope that as we remember the parents who gave us life, many of those moments will give us strength to go on living fulfilling lives.
Rabbi Melissa Crespy