Vayechi: our life is given to us so that we learn how to die

The narrative opens with the verse “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were a hundred forty and seven years.

Immediately we are plunged into an end of life narrative but for the first time we have an extended view as we see Jacob begin to put his family affairs in order and to secure the succession, as a number of different conversations and scenes are recorded.

“And the time drew near that Israel must die; and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favour in thy sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly with me; bury me not, I pray you, in Egypt .But when I sleep with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying-place.’ And he said: ‘I will do as you have said.’ And he said: ‘Swear to me.’ And he swore to him.”

When Jacob’s father Isaac had died, the narrative was short and to the point. We are told that: “Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiriat-arba–the same is Hebron–where Abraham and Isaac sojourned. And the days of Isaac were a hundred and fourscore years. And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him. (Genesis 35: 27-29)

The ‘deathbed scene’ of passing on the special blessing with its accompanying promise of covenantal relationship with God had taken place many years earlier apparently, when his sons were much younger, and Isaac had seemed more concerned with getting a good meal than with the business of settling the family inheritance after his death. “And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his elder son, and said to him: ‘My son’; and he said unto him: ‘Here am I.’ And he said: ‘Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savoury food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die’ (Gen 27:1-4)

Isaac did not take the responsibility to ensure that things would transition smoothly after his death; he did not call both his sons to his bedside in order to deliver the blessing, but set up a complicated process that in retrospect looks almost wilfully negligent. The outcome was that the boys were set against each other, that Jacob fled and was away for at least fourteen years, and that the doubt as to his legitimacy as heir to his father’s blessing threads through the narrative as he battles angels and debates with God and we are left wondering what was Isaac’s intention in asking “who are you, my son?”

Isaac did not model himself on his own father who had many more children with Keturah after Sarah’s death, but about whom we are told “And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country” (Gen 25:6 )Abraham protected Isaac from inheritance claims and also arranged his marriage into a powerful and protective family (Gen 24:1ff)

And now we have the deathbed arrangements of Jacob, and what a difference as he plans and calculates! First he speaks to Joseph, and he asks that he not be buried in Egypt but with his own father in the Cave of Machpela at Mamre. Then as he declines further, Joseph visits again with his own two sons, named for forgetting his past and for his successful life in Egypt. Jacob summons his strength to tell the story of the covenantal blessing, of the angel who had guarded him, of the death and burial of Joseph’s mother Rachel, adopts both the boys explicitly bringing them into the covenant blessing, and setting the younger (Ephraim) over the older (Manasseh). He gives Joseph what to all intents and purposes is his personal blessing, telling him that God will be with him and will bring him back to his ancestral land, and he offers something else that is outside of the covenant: “Moreover I have given to you one portion above your brothers, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.‘ (Gen:48:22)

And then finally he spoke to all the twelve sons together, twice telling them to assemble themselves together, and then offering individual blessings to each one. These are not the blessings of the covenant but clear assessments of their personalities and likely futures. Judah is singled out for praise and leadership, and Joseph is given what appears to be the major non-covenantal and personal blessing: “The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of the prince among his brethren.” And then he asks all his sons to make sure he will be buried in the ancestral graves in Machpela, and he too expires and, like Abraham and Isaac before him, he is “gathered to his people”.

It is an exemplary death. All the threads of his life are brought together – his funeral arrangements are made, and he asks ALL his children to take responsibility to take him to the burial site which will bring him – and them – back to his familial roots. He brings his two Egyptian grandchildren into the family fold, he resolves his relationship with Joseph in a number of ways not least taking the responsibility of being the parent rather than being a guest enjoying his son’s hospitality and giving his personal gift separately from the family inheritance. He brings all his sons together so that none have more information than the others, and he is absolutely clear about them and their fortunes in an open and formal setting of deathbed blessing. And having finished his speech he gets comfortably into the bed and he dies.

Many years later we are told a similar story – the death of Rabbi Judah haNasi whom we know to have been in terrible pain and discomfort in his terminal state, but whose process of dying also encompasses the resolving of the important issues of his life. In the Babylonian Talmud we read “At the time of Rabbi’s death he said: I need my sons. His sons came to him and he told them “carefully observe the honour due to your mother……He said to them “I need the sages of Israel. The sages of Israel came to him and he said to them” Do not eulogise me in the towns. But establish a session after thirty days. Simon my son shall be Hacham, Gamliel my son shall be Nasi. Hanina bar Hama shall sit at the head of the Academy.  He said to them “I need my younger son” R. Simon came to him; He transmitted to him the tradition of wisdom. He said to them I need my older son. Rabban Gamliel came to him and he transmitted to him the orders of the patriarchate. ( Ketubot 103a-b)

Rabbi’s death was less peaceful than that of Jacob, indeed it took the intervention of a compassionate maid servant to help ease him from this world when she saw just how much pain he was in, but his thoughtful planning and the passing on of the legacy of his learning and leadership owe much to the story in Genesis. Only when Jacob completes the resolution of the family tensions at his deathbed, rather than hide from the challenge as his own father had done, does the story of lethal sibling rivalry that began with the very first brothers Cain and Abel and was demonstrated down the generations of the Book of Genesis, end. Judah HaNasi faced a similar problem – there was no clear successor of sufficient stature, so he gave to both his sons as well as to R.Hanina bar Hama a role and a title to go forward with. We know that the decentralisation of the rabbinic world began at this time, along with a flowering of other academies – -the new Academy and Patriarchate at Tiberius came to supersede the one at Sepphoris over time. But Judah haNasi did his best to prevent the splintering of authority and both his life and his death contributed to a smoother shift than might otherwise have been.

Most of us will not be leaving anything so valuable an inheritance as these figures, but we will all be leaving other important gifts and it is essential that we learn the lessons of dying well from wherever we can.

The lessons in our texts are a good place to start. To confront the reality that we will die, even if we don’t know when, so that we can plan and work in order to leave behind good relationships rather than complicated or destructive feelings.

The model to avoid is that of Isaac who surprisingly thought more about fulfilling his own immediate needs than smoothing the path for the future. Jacob the trickster cast aside his deceptiveness and spoke to each son individually in the presence of the others. Rabbi spoke with both the Sages of the Academy and then to each of his sons in order to prevent unseemly battles over leadership.

We none of us know the day of our death, but we can most certainly try to live our lives in such a way that we do not leave too much of a relationship mess behind us. If we truly lived as if we might die tomorrow we might say and do the things we should say and do now, and not say or do the things we imagine we can always sort out some time in the future while we focus on our own needs.

If we try to put things right each day, as if it is our last day and this our deathbed process, then we might leave less emotional mess behind. If we tell those we love that we love them, forgive those who hurt us, let people know our wishes -be it organ donation or special bequests; if we give back what we owe and plan for the future so that we do not leave others in the lurch, then we can leave the rest up to God and to the future that we can hope will take care of itself.

Sidra Vayigash:the reassurance of God’s presence in dark times

And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ And God said: ‘I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes.’ And Jacob rose up from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him. And they took their cattle, and their goods, which they had got in the land of Canaan, and came into Egypt, Jacob, and all his seed with him; his sons, and his sons’ sons with him, his daughters, and his sons’ daughters, and all his seed brought he with him into EgyptGen 46:1-6

Jacob has a number of meetings with God during the night – the first was the dream on the road out to Haran when he was running away from Esau, and a ladder appeared to him that joined heavens to earth, and God delivered a reassuring message to him. The second the dream at the ford of Yabok, when he was returning home to Canaan, wealthy and secure but also anxious about the reception he would get from Esau.  And now here, at Beersheba, God appears in order it seems to reassure him that he will return from Egypt and will become a great nation. It reads to us a little strangely – for we know that Jacob will die in Egypt, and that as a nation they will only leave in over 400 years’ time, having survived a long period of slavery, yet one might read into it that the time in Egypt will be a short respite during the famine. Why? Does God think that Jacob will not cope with the reality of what his descendants will face? Is this vision one that emanates from Jacob’s need for support rather than being a real meeting with God? Is God responding more to the Jacob God first met, the frightened young man who yet was confident enough to tell God that only if God fulfilled the promises made in the dream would he finally believe, rather than to the older man whose world is shaped by the loss of his older son by his beloved wife Rachel; who has been frozen in grief since that time.

Or is the story added into the narrative later as a story to support the enslaved Israelites and ameliorate their suffering?

We have no answers, just as we have no answer for the interchangeable use of the two names Jacob and Israel, so powerful yet so cryptic in this passage. Yet as with all the encounters Jacob has with God during night time journeys, the vision is one we are able to hold on to today – providing reassurance in times of uncertainty, reminding us that we are one link in a chain that goes back into history and will go forward into a future we cannot know.

We are most definitely the children of Jacob rather than those of Abraham or Isaac. Abraham had a stern and all-encompassing faith which seemingly left no room for doubt or anxiety, Isaac lived in the shadow of that faith and his own encounters with God are clearly shaped by it. But Jacob was his own self, a mixture of self-assurance and anxiety, wanting to believe but not being too sure about it, prepared to do a deal with God when it seemed an expedient action.  It is given to few people to believe with certainty, and to fewer still to come to belief through their own experiences, rather than to have it bred into them. Doubt is a colourful strand in the Jewish character, it threads through our narratives and our prayer. Indeed we pray in an aspirational way – hoping to be able to believe rather than asserting that we hold such a conviction.  Whether God ever speaks to Jacob in the night or whether Jacob creates the experience for himself becomes an irrelevant question – what is important is that Jacob is able and willing to create such an encounter (or to believe it when it comes). It is all that is asked of us too – to be able and willing and open to the presence of God when times are at their darkest.

Miketz: the strange case of the disappearing women

Dr Ruchama Weiss points out that sidra Miketz is the first in Torah that is devoid of any stories of women : – she identifies it as the point at which bible begins to actively exclude women from the focus of the narrative. Over the fourteen years that the sidra spans in three and a half chapters of the book of Genesis, women are indeed conspicuous by their absence. The matriarchs have died, the only daughter of Jacob that we know of, the unfortunate Dina, has disappeared following her experiences with Shechem, no other daughters or indeed wives of the sons of Jacob are recorded here. They must have existed, but the biblical author does not see fit to document their presence.

There is in fact one woman who briefly makes an appearance – Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera a priest of On. Our introduction to her is laconic and almost imperceptible, she rates less than a third of the verse in which she appears, coming after the renaming of Joseph and before his status is recorded: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.—“(41:5). She reappears five verses later as mother to Joseph’s two sons: “ And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On bore unto him.” (41:50). She doesn’t get to name her sons, up till now the privilege of the mother, nor do we see her relationship with them – all we see is Joseph naming Manasseh and Ephraim in order to make statements about himself: “And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second he called Ephraim: ‘for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (51,52)


Her lonely presence in the sidra, useful only as a wife for Joseph and mother to his children, is picked up in the 6th century pseudepigraphical work “Joseph and Asenath” , though to be honest there too she is still the plaything and chattel of men. A pagan woman, she falls in love with Joseph and gives up her idolatry in a painful and protracted process in order to marry him and have his sons. Later the son of the Pharaoh tries to take her for himself but the plot is foiled, and Joseph takes the crown of Egypt. So there is not much more to her there either. She may be the daughter of a powerful priest of the Egyptian cult, the wife of the most powerful man in the country bar Pharaoh himself, the mother of the founders of the tribes of Ephraim and Menasse, but she is unknowable, mysterious and all but erased from history. Her fleeting presence in the sidra that is filled with the powerful men who control all the resources of the country only really serves to highlight the poignancy of her disappearance. And to complicate matters further, there are those who say that her presence in the sidra at all, inserted quite clumsily into the text as daughter, wife and mother, is only tolerated because she acts as a counterbalance to the physical beauty of Joseph which drives women into a sexual frenzy while he himself remains emotionally detached and essentially sexless. She is there as an answer to the questions about his sexuality, to put paid to any idea that he may not conform to the heteronormative ideal of the Hebrew bible.

This year – 2015 – is the eightieth anniversary of the private ordination of the first woman rabbi of modern times, Rabbiner Regina Jonas; and the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the first woman to be given semicha by a European rabbinic institution (Leo Baeck College) Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick.

One of the most shocking things about the life and times of Rabbiner Regina Jonas was how quickly she was forgotten after her death in Auschwitz in 1944. When I was studying at the Leo Baeck College in the 1980’s we knew only of rumours that there had been a woman who may or may not have been ordained Rabbi in Germany – even though some of the teachers and founders of the college had known her well. It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of some of her papers and photographs from an archive that she once again became real. And now her life and name are being researched and reclaimed, yet there is so much that is lost beyond recall. She disappeared even while there were people alive to remember her. Her story is an object lesson, a cautionary tale, how quickly can the stories of people disappear if there is no interest, no will to record them and to keep them alive.

In the forty years that Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick has been working as a rabbi the world has moved on. There is less anxiety (at least in the progressive Jewish world) about women working as rabbis, but still there are those individuals who ask for a male rabbi for a life cycle event, or synagogue search committees who worry what will happen to their community if a woman is appointed as rabbi, or as the senior rabbi.

So we should not be complacent and believe that the battle has been won. The erasing of the inconvenient from history goes on everywhere, and it is a truism history is written by the winners. If the narrator of the biblical text is not interested in the women then the stories of the women will not appear. If we don’t have a multiplicity of voices recording history as they see it, then we will have a thin and diminished version of history, seen through the narrowest of lenses. And this too has knock on effects. Because there are so few women fully described and fully voiced in our foundational texts, it is a short leap for some to believe that this must not be a function of the (lack of )interest of the narrator but a function of the divinely inspired status of women in society.

As the societal norms are impacting on Judaism, as the eightieth anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas and the fortieth of Jackie Tabick begin to filter into the consciousness of orthodox feminism, and as more Jewish women demand that their voice be heard, there is a corresponding kick back from some in the orthodox world. Only this week A senior haredi rabbi suggested at a conference for high school principals held in Bnei Brak that higher education for women constitutes a more severe blow to the haredi world than the Holocaust and a responsa was given to a man about letting his daughter go to university that “ to do so would be worse than stealing money since material goods may be recovered but the “spiritual damage” of permitting the young woman to achieve higher education could not be undone.”

The spiritual damage envisaged when a woman is allowed to study at a high level, to learn to think and question and understand the world around her is not to the woman herself – it is damage to the structure of a community which relies on unquestioning following of self-appointed sages. When people think for themselves, the artificial consensus breaks, and a real consensus, based on challenge and debate, logical argument and building of agreement is allowed to emerge. In sidra miketz the women are submerged in the narrative with just the flash of one woman’s presence that serves to point up all the absences. We should be warned, there is nothing new under the sun, and women are being ‘disappeared’ from public space in the Jewish world with increasing determination, just as they are in this sidra. In the book of Exodus the presence of women will reassert itself, but their silence as the book of Genesis begins to move towards its close is a telling one. And a nudge to us to take responsibility not to allow it to happen again.

Vayeshev: the crime of selling a person

“Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said to his brothers, “what profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.
And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes. And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’ (Gen 37:25-30)… And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. (39:1)…[And Joseph said] For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ (40:15)

The first story of human trafficking is told here in sidra vayeshev, and sadly it is a story that resonates to this day in the lived experience of the six to eight hundred thousand people estimated to be trafficked across international boundaries each year, and the 20 – 30 million people who are currently estimated to be living in slavery.
Like many who are trafficked today, Joseph is young and vulnerable, he is (to be) sold off by family members, and while presumably sold for labour it is not impossible he could have been sold for sex (certainly Potiphar’s wife has expectations in this area). He finds himself at the mercy of a well organised people trafficking structure, sold through the agency of the Midianites to the Ishmaelites who go on to sell him in Egypt along with their other products. Today human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking). It reportedly generates a profit of over £21 billion every year of which £10 billion is made in industrialized countries. Human trafficking is big business. And it causes enormous suffering.
Bible begins by telling us that human beings are created in the image of the Divine, from which we understand the basic and absolute value of human beings. Just as God is indivisible and of infinite worth, so is humanity indivisible and of infinite worth. We might construct all kinds of models in our heads about class, ethnicity, gender, power, social status, geographical cultural and historical connections, but bible keeps reminding us of the one basic truth: human beings are one group, connected ultimately to the earth on which we live, connected deeply and irrevocably to each other.
The bible as a document is powerfully engaged with this idea, and with how it plays out in the power relationships that humans participate in, that shape our society. It knows how easy it is to abuse power, how simple to turn a blind eye to it happening in both the intimate details of our lives and in the macro environment in which we are live. It knows about the human tendency to construct realities that favour ourselves over others, to neglect or ignore what does not speak to our own self-interest or conform to our idea of reality. Bible provides the nudge, the spur to remind us that not only is there more to the world than our own experience, it repeatedly teaches us that there is an obligation on us to pay attention outside of our comfort zone, a requirement to see the world as God sees it – a fragile and beautiful place filled with fragile and beautiful creatures engaged in a process of improvement but simultaneously undermining and subverting that process out of ignorance or selfishness or thoughtlessness or greed.
We see ourselves in the texts; we recognise the themes and the motifs that play through the stories and we know that we are being prompted to respond.
So when we read the story of Joseph, defenceless in the pit after his brothers’ intervention, saved from being murdered but arguably paying the even greater price of being traded from group to group with no protection and no idea of what the end of his journey may be, powerless and frightened, a product not a person, about whom no one will care what happens – we have to pay attention and we have to respond. There are estimated to be between six and eight hundred thousand people having a similar experience ever year in our world. And we should care.
In the book of Exodus, in the legal code following the giving of the ten commandments and the covenant made between God and Israel, comes the instruction “And one who steals a person and sells them, or if a person be found in their possession (as merchandise), they shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16). Deuteronomy repeats the command: “If a person be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, and sell him; then that thief shall die; so shall you put away the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7). In the biblical world clearly people were bought and sold, seen as chattels to be profited from, and already the voice of the text is outlawing the behaviour. By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) (for e.g. Sanhedrin11:1) the death penalty for human trafficking is discussed and accepted – a mark of how seriously the crime is taken to be and this is continued in the Gemara (5th Century CE) (e.g. Sanhedrin 86a)
In the medieval period there are responsa again underlining the importance of challenging the prevalence of abducting and selling human beings – for example Maimonides (12th C) tells us that Torah views the kidnap of a person as the most serious form of theft that is strictly prohibited on pain of death under the Noachide code and in the eighth of the Ten Commandments, ( Laws of Theft 9:1-6) and also teaches that redeeming captives is more important than supporting the poor, because captives are in danger of their lives (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Matanot Aniyyim 8:10). Rabbi Joseph Colon (1420-1480) warns that a person who has the ability to save a trafficked person yet delays doing so is “like one who sheds blood.”… the responsa can be found in every century, in every place, demonstrating that the crime of trafficking human beings can equally be found in every century and in every place – including, sadly, our own.
So what should we do? Firstly, we should not ignore the issue, not assume that it is not happening because we have not noticed it, nor that it “wouldn’t happen” in our bit of the world. Secondly we should educate ourselves on the signs, so that we are alert to the possibility of trafficking. These can be found here:

And we can also think through the ways we live and the choices we make – are the clothes or food we want to buy surprisingly cheap indicating that the makers/pickers are on low wages? Is there an ethical policy in place in the financial transactions we make? Are we sufficiently educated about the real cost, the real chain by which products come to us, the reality faced by people who find themselves in economic bondage to others?
The tragedy of human trafficking is that it hides in plain sight. Bible knew that and tried to give us the tools to see. We are in need of such tools even today. Let the words of Joseph speak to us again “For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also have I done nothing that they should put me into the dungeon.’ And remind us that the lack of freedom for those who are trafficked is real, a dungeon from which they cannot escape and a place where no meaning can be gleaned.