Genesis 47:28 Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty seven years. 29 And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph…
At the end of the last parashah, Israel arrived and settled in Egypt. We begin this week’s parashah seventeen years later. A conspicuous gap in the timeline of any story is interesting to me. When I come across something like this, I want to know what might have happened during that time. We can often look to the current narrative to find clues as to how situations or characters have changed. The situation has indeed changed as Jacob in now nearing the end of his life, but we don’t have much else to go on. I have to wonder how much direct contact our characters have actually had over the course of these seventeen years, as it seems that whatever they have been doing, they haven’t spent much of that time communicating.
When Jacob calls Joseph to him in order to ask that he not be buried in Egypt, he receives Joseph’s word that he will do as he is asked, but Jacob pushes for a further measure, commanding his son to swear to him that when he dies Joseph will take his body to be buried with his ancestors. Our commentators Abraham Ibn Ezra (12 c. Spain) and Nachmanides (13 c. Spain) both assure that Jacob trusted Joseph to do as he asked and only commanded him to swear so that Joseph would have a stronger case in the event that Pharaoh would not allow him to make this journey. I’m not so sure. It reads to me as if Jacob needed some reassurance that his son wasn’t simply telling him what he wanted to hear. I don’t read trust in this exchange. Each has had reason to feel abandoned by the other and may be holding unspoken resentments. These two do not appear to have reestablished the bond they so clearly shared in Joseph’s youth.
At the end of our parashah, following Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that he might be harboring a grudge against them and want to seek revenge for the wrongs that they had done to him, believing it seems, that their father’s presence had offered some protection against their brother’s hidden anger. It’s deja vue: after seventeen years the brothers might as well be standing in Joseph’s house, with Joseph stating (again) that whatever their intentions had been, all had been set in motion by God for a greater purpose.
Over all that time, how could this remain unresolved? From the outside it seems easy; if they would just confront their issues with one another it would all be okay. The parashah in the end actually makes it look just that easy. After each of these incidents, we see what appears to be a fairly simple resolution: Jacob receives the oath he seeks from his son and bestows a loving and beautiful blessing upon Joseph. Joseph’s brothers ask for forgiveness, and he cries and reassures them, “speaking kindly to them.” Of course, there’s nothing simple with emotions or family dynamics in a situation surrounding the death of a loved one.
I am reminded of my relationship with my own father. He and I went a number of years without speaking to one another. The issues between us were not particularly traumatic – petty arguments that grew larger to fill the distance between us. Eventually a family issue arose and we started talking again, but not really saying anything of substance, certainly not discussing the reasons that we had cut off communication, and after time we again fell silent. The silence ended in January of 2015 when, within three days, my father’s wife suffered a heart attack and died and he fell and broke his neck and was hospitalized. I made my way to Florida to be with him and spent much of the next four months flying back and forth between school in California and my ailing father in Florida. To make matters worse, my father’s cancer came out of remission, and he had grown too weak for chemotherapy. Emotions were high, and we talked a lot during this time and cleared the air between us. We learned about each other’s pain and we forgave one another. There was this sense of urgency, you see. And I think it’s the sense of urgency that the characters in our parashah are experiencing that finally allows them to come to terms with one another and themselves. We can’t say that they could have resolved them sooner or in another way.
I do think that I could have acknowledged my resentments and seen my part in my father’s pain sooner, but I didn’t and we had the relationship that we did. That experience and this parashah highlight for me the need to acknowledge and confront my own resentments as soon I recognize them and to seek forgiveness for my wrongs as a living teshuvah.