And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him, and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt. (Genesis 50:26).
It was the end of an era. With the passing of Yosef, the story of the Patriarchs comes to a close and the era of the Jewish people begins.
The Shach (Rav Shabtai ben Meir HaKohen, 1621-1662) asks why the Torah would choose to close the book of Bereishis on such a sad note. Tosafos quotes a principle of “Misaymim B’Tov, we try to conclude on a positive/good note.” Why not end with something more upbeat and optimistic? The Shach explains that Yaakov instructed that Yosef was to be buried in Egypt and not taken immediately to the Land of Israel. Yaakov said to Yosef, “You need to protect the Children of Israel … you need to be source of inspiration and kindness all the days of their servitude, and you need to accompany them as they make the journey through the desert to the promised land.” Knowing that Yosef was with them gave our ancestors hope during the dark years of slavery. Remembering Yosef’s kindness to his brothers gave us the ability to be kind to one another during the years of brutality. And having Yosef’s casket with us as we travelled through the desert reminded us that we are part of a beautiful, Divine vision. We are a people of destiny.
I believe that there are two profound lessons which emerge from this idea. We learn that sometimes, the most meaningful thing you can do for someone is to be present. When we encounter a friend or acquaintance who is undergoing a difficult time, we often think we need to come up with something to say or some theological profundity which is going to suddenly remove all of the pain and hurt. When in reality, all we really need to do is be present. When my friend or family member knows that I am here, I am by their side, I’m not going anywhere, that in and of itself provides nechama. The only think worse than suffering – is suffering alone. Yosef didn’t do anything to ease the pain of his children and descendants – he just remained present. The second lesson is a bit more complex. We learn from this last verse that at times we must be willing to sacrifice for the good of the other. Yosef deserved to be buried in the land of his birth. Yosef, the young man who was stolen from his homeland, had every right to be placed in its holy dirt. Yet, Yaakov tells him – your people need you. They need you in Egypt. And when your people need you, you must stand ready to answer the call even if it means sacrificing the very things which are important to you. Yosef, you will make it to the Land of Israel in a few hundred years, but right now, your place in death, as it was in life, is in Egypt. This is what it means to be part of a nation. This is what is means to be part of something bigger than yourself. I must be willing to sacrifice for the benefit of my people. Yosef gave up burial in the land of his forefathers for his beloved brothers and sisters.
Sefer Bereishis does end on a high note. For these final lessons of Sefer Bereishis are what allow us to transition from the book of individuals to the book of the nation. It is only if we are present and willing to sacrifice for one another that we can be a holy, beautiful, and unified nation.
This week is an end. This Shabbos marks the end of Sefer Bereishis, and this past Thursday marked the end of 2020. It has been a most turbulent year. A pandemic, raucous presidential election, and racial tensions are just some of the major issues which have made this year challenging and overwhelming. It comes as no surprise that many feel relieved that 2020 is coming to an end; January 1, 2021 can only pave the way for something better and brighter. But as Jews, we look at “endings” a bit differently. When we conclude a Book of the Torah (Chumash), we recite the words, Chazak Chazak V’Nischazeyk, Be Strong, Be Strong and let us be strengthened. We understand that “endings” are an incredible opportunity to take stock and evaluate the past while simultaneously planning for the future. An “ending” allows me to learn from the past, from both my achievements and mistakes, and do better going forward.
This week’s Parsha is not only the conclusion of the book of Bereishis but also the end of the story of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and their children. The story ends with the death of Yosef.
And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him, and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt (Genesis 50:26).
The Tosafists in their commentary explain, “Misaymim B’Tov, we conclude (a Book of the Torah) with good (some piece of positive or upbeat information). But what is the “good” in this conclusion? Yosef died and with his death, Egyptian persecution and enslavement begins.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1783-1841), in his sefer Bnai Yissoschar, provides an incredible explanation.
“… On the caskets of kings, they would inscribe the royal name of the deceased monarch. However, on Yosef’s casket they did not write Tzafnas PaNeyach (his Egyptian name), rather, they inscribed the name Yosef …”
The Rebbe is teaching us a profound lesson. Yosef was known by many names. He was a son, a brother, Hebrew, slave, adviser, servant, husband, father, and viceroy. But at the end of his life, the name inscribed on his casket was Yosef. His many names represented the many identities he had to assume at different times. Yosef had to change and evolve. He never intended to serve a gentile master, but when the circumstances called for it – he did it. He never intended to be an Egyptian king – but when he was needed, he rose to the occasion. He never thought he would be sold like a piece of property, but when it happened, he accepted and navigated this new reality. But after all that happened, he reclaimed his primary identity, Yosef. After all that occurred, he found the ability to be a simple Jew in a complex world. At the end of the day, he remained a man committed to growth and self-actualization in every situation.
Our circumstances are not as turbulent as Yosef’s – but life is life. Things happen, and we change. At times we change because of tragedy and adversity, and at times we evolve because of our life circumstances and surroundings. These changes can be positive and conducive to growth and accomplishment, or they can represent the loss of certain positive qualities and attributes I once possessed but have now lost along the journey of life. If the changes are positive, I must reinforce them, but if I realize that I have lost vital parts of self, I must figure out how to reclaim them.
Perhaps, this is our avoda (lifework) at this end of 2020 and Sefer Bereishis. Although it is overused, it is still true. We have lived through unprecedented times, and we have all changed in some way. The only question is – are the changes good or bad? Perhaps, over these last 9 months, we have discovered incredible strengths and abilities we never knew we possessed. Perhaps, I have created a stronger bond with my family and have come to appreciate my home life like never before. Perhaps, I have figured out how to be comfortable being alone and have used my time to introspect and think. Or perhaps, I have been riddled with stress. Perhaps, as a result of pandemic and politics, I find my relationships and ability to deal with others strained. Perhaps, I lost my rhythm of learning and davening and find myself spiritually listless. We must end the year and Sefer Bereishis with “tov, good.” Let us identify the positive steps and strides and bring them with us into this new chapter. Let us take these newly discovered strengths and utilize them to create new realities. And if we have lost valuable pieces of self – let us reclaim them. What have I lost? And where did I lose it? Yosef lost and reclaimed, and now, we can do the same.
Chazak Chazak V’Nischazeyk.
Yaakov Avinu was preparing for his final journey. As his life was coming to an end, he took the opportunity to speak to each of his sons, conveying to them personal and necessary messages and inspiration to guide them in the generations and millennia ahead. He began with his grandsons. He summoned Yosef, together with his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and announced that these two grandsons will be counted amongst the tribes. And then, something peculiar occurred.
“And Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and it displeased him. So, he held up his father’s hand to remove it from upon Ephraim’s head [to place it] on Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, ‘Not so, Father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused, and he said, ‘I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he, and his children’s fame will fill the nations.’ So, he blessed them on that day, saying, ‘With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh,” and he placed Ephraim before Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:17-20)
Yaakov gave dominance to the younger son, Ephraim over the older son, Menashe. Both sons would have great and righteous descendants, but Ephraim’s offspring would be greater than Menashe’s. This “change” was the byproduct of Yaakov’s prophetic vision but why declare that we should bless our children to be like Menashe and Ephraim? To this very day, when we bless our sons on Friday night, we use the exact verbiage mentioned above, “yi’simcha Elokim k’Ephraim u’k’Menashe.” Why? There are so many great men to chose from as role models for our sons. Why not bless our sons that they should be like Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? Furthermore, we know very little about Menashe and Ephraim outside of this episode. What is the meaning of this sacred blessing we convey to our children every week?
Rav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1785-1841) in his work, Igra D’Kallah, provides a beautiful insight. In that very moment when Yaakov switched his hands, he switched the familial hierarchy. In one moment, Menashe the firstborn was relegated to a “lower” position and Ephraim, the younger son was elevated to a more prominent one. One would have thought that this would cause strife and animosity between the brothers. One would have thought that Menashe would be resentful, and Ephraim would become arrogant. Yet, the brothers maintained a sense of love and respect for one another. Ephraim still maintained the proper reverence one has for an older sibling and Menashe was happy for the honor and greatness bestowed upon his younger brother. They respected and were truly happy for one another. When Yaakov saw this, he was overwhelmed. He had witnessed animosity between his own sons and viewed this as the inability for brothers to coexist and respect one another. And now as these two boys saw their respective destinies changed in a moment, they still loved and accepted one another. It was in this moment that Yaakov said, for all generations when parents comes to bless their sons, let them say, “yi’simcha Elokim k’Ephraim u’k’Menashe.”
Every parent has dreams and aspirations for their children. We want our children to be successful spiritually and materially. We want our children to be happy, content, well-adjusted and thrive. But there is one thing that every parent values more than anything – the ability for siblings to get along. This need to “get along” is not limited to our biological brothers and sisters, it applies to our national siblings, our Am Yisroel brothers and sisters as well. What is the secret to getting along with brothers and sisters? It is quite simple – be happy for the other if he succeeds, even if you don’t. Too often we are jealous and envious of the successes of the other. God gives us each what we need to grow and thrive. Someone else’s success could have never been mine. As such, one must find it in their heart to rejoice for the successes of the other. And if you are the successful one, never look down on your brother, love and respect him just the same. Having more success than someone else doesn’t make us better or superior. In order to convey this blessing to our children, we must first inculcate it within ourselves and then model it. May we bless and be blessed with the emotional strength of Ephraim and Menashe.
This shiur was given at the Women’s Institute of Torah.
Sponsored by Suri Reiner in loving memory of her mother Henna Rochel bas Binyamin Chaim z’l and her grandmothers, Fayga bas Yaakov HaLevi z’l and Frayda bas Shmuel z’l.
And Jacob concluded commanding his sons, and he drew his legs [up] into the bed, and expired and was brought in to his people (Genesis 49:33)
With his sons gathered around his bed to receive final blessings and instruction from their beloved father, Yaakov drew his last breath. With his death came the end of an era. The sun of the Patriarchs had set as the sun of the nation of Israel began to rise. But Yaakov was much more than a father; he was a unifying force in an often fractured family. In last week’s Parsha, Yehuda pleads with Yosef (who had not yet revealed his true identity) to release Binyamin and he says, “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” (Bereishis 44:34) It was the image of his suffering father that prevented Yosef from maintaining his detached façade and moved him to reveal his identity. Yosef proceeded to make a dramatic yet, puzzling statement, “’I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence.” (Bereishis 45:3) Why did Yosef ask about his father? Just one verse earlier Yosef was moved by Yehuda’s description of Yaakov’s suffering. In fact, throughout the multiple conversations between Yosef and his brothers, Yosef always asks about the welfare of “their father.” Why during the moment of revelation did Yosef ask, “Is my father still alive?”
Rav Shmuel Borenstein (1856-1926), the Rebbe of Sochachov in his work titled, Shem M’Shmuel explains that Yosef was asking, Is my father’s spirit still alive? Does he still possess the Divine spirit within? Yosef was asking his brothers if his father was the same man he had known twenty-two years ago, or had he become someone different. Did he still possess the spirit of holiness or had it dissipated with time? Did the suffering and pain of the past 22 years break him or had he still retained his optimism and hope? Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin (1887-1933) explains that Yosef was posing the question to himself. He was asking, “Ha’od Avi Chai B’Kirbi, (does my father still live within me)?” Do I still feel that connection to my father? Do I desire to have him in my life? Do I still feel that love I once knew?
Yosef understood that traumatic life experiences change who we are. In truth , it is not just traumatic experiences; life changes us. As children we are loving, caring, trusting, optimistic and content. As we get older and experience failure, hurt, betrayal and setbacks we begin to replace these childlike qualities with sarcasm, cynicism and pessimism. In the moments after the revelation Yosef wonders to himself, can I become the person I once was? Can my father become the person he once was? So much has happened, so much has changed, Ha’od Avi Chai, does the father I knew still exist? Does the person I once was still exist?
Amazingly, when Yosef asks the brothers this question, there is no reply. Because no one can answer this question for Yosef; Yosef must decide for himself. Yosef must decide if he will let twenty-two years of difficulty and pain define him or if he will choose to reclaim his former self. Yosef decides that he will be a loving benevolent brother who will work to repair his family. And he sends an important message to his father. He says, “Hasten and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘So said your son, Joseph: “God has made me a lord over all the Egyptians. Come down to me, do not tarry.” (Bereishis 45:9) The Hebrew phrase for “do not tarry” is “al taamod.” This can also be translated as, “do not stand in place.” Yosef was telling his father, I know that the spirit of God has not been upon you for the last twenty-two years, I know that you have not been “alive” during these last two decades when you thought I was dead, but it doesn’t have to continue like this. Don’t stand in place. If you want to change your attitude and disposition you have the ability to do so. I have done it and father, so can you.
In this week’s Parsha Yaakov says to Yosef, “… God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day. May the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land.” (Bereishis 48:15-16) Yaakov answers Yosef’s question. “I kept my connection to my God. I felt Him by my side every step of the way. I never lost myself to my suffering no matter how difficult things became. There were years of mourning and feeling bereft, but I never lost my relationship and connection to my Father. But throughout my life even when I have lost hope and optimism, I made the conscious decision to reclaim it. Yes, my son, I am still alive. The beracha I give to your children is that they should feel the connection and providence of Hashem even in difficult, tumultuous and turbulent times.”
As Yaakov drew his last breath he looked at his children and realized that they had managed to heal the wounds, mend the rifts and repair the broken hearts. They decided to reclaim the familial love they once had and to try to rebuild.
The era of the Patriarchs had ended, but their children continued to inspire. Yaakov and Yosef teach us one of our most important life lessons. We start out on the journey of life with hope, optimism and great dreams. But things happen. Trauma changes us, life changes us, and circumstances often unfold in ways we did not expect. As a result, we lose parts of ourselves that were so precious and necessary. But we have the power to reclaim all that is lost. Because at the end of the day, we decide the kind of people we are going to be. We decide the disposition and the life outlook we adopt and maintain. We decide the traits and dispositions which will define us. We possess the power to reclaim all we have lost.