The Power of Deathbed Promises

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles

Genesis 47:28–50:26
Haftarah Portion: I Kings 2:1–12

Parashat Va-y'chi concludes the Book of Genesis. It is a mixture of narrative and poetry, of blessings and curses, of promises and anxiety about the future. As we shall see, the last moments in the lives of the patriarch Jacob and of his son Joseph come to represent crucial foundational incidents in Jewish tradition and the life of the Jewish people.

The parashah opens with a brief description of Jacob's approaching death and the promise he requires of Joseph to bury Jacob in the ancestral burial site in the Land of Israel (Genesis 47:28�31). Later, Joseph is summoned to his father's deathbed, and Jacob recites God's promises to Joseph, blesses Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and assigns Joseph an additional portion of inheritance over his brothers (Genesis 48). The first 27 verses of Genesis 49 represent a type of poetic prophecy in which Jacob blesses (or curses) his sons in a way that reflects both the character and qualities of the sons and the poet's attitude toward the tribes who carry their names. The last chapter of Genesis (50) describes the extraordinary preparations for Jacob's funeral and the large funeral procession that accompanies the body back to the Land of Israel. Although it contains yet another anxious scene between the brothers and Joseph, the chapter concludes with the end of Joseph's life and his commanding hope that his descendants will "bring my bones up from this place" when God brings Israel out of Egypt (Genesis 50:25). 

Rabbinic tradition focuses especially on two of the many episodes in the narrative with these questions: 

  • What was really the promise made at Jacob's deathbed scene? 
  • How were the bones of Joseph discovered as the Israelites prepared for the Exodus?

In regard to both cases, the midrash links our parashah with significant liturgical innovations or miraculous occurrences later in the biblical story. In response to the first question, the midrash plays with the name Israel, referring to the patriarch Jacob and also to the people of Israel. The following passage is a comment on the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 6:4):

"Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Whence did Israel merit to recite the Sh'ma? When Jacob was about to die he called together all the tribes and he said to them:"[I am anxious] lest you bow down to another God after I have departed this world." From whence do we know this? For so it is written, "Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob" (Genesis 49:2). What is the force of the phrase, "Hearken to Israel your father" (Genesis 49:2)? Jacob said to them: "The God of Israel is your Father." They replied: "Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone." And he added softly, "Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever."

Rabbi Levi said: And what do Israel imply when they now say, ["Hear, O Israel"]? Hear, our father Israel, what you have commanded us we still adhere to: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.

(D'varim Rabbah 2:35, adapted from Midrash Rabbah , vol. 7, trans. J. Rabbinowitz [London: Soncino Press], 1983, p. 64).

As the midrash unfolds, we see that the setting for the Sh'ma (Deuteronomy 6:4) is understood to be Jacob's (Israel's) deathbed scene at the beginning of Genesis 49:1�2, when the patriarch calls his sons to tell them "what shall befall you in days to come." Jacob fears that his descendants will fall into idolatry and tells them that "the God of Israel [!] is your Father." In the midrashic setting, the subject of the verb sh'ma, "hear," is the sons of Jacob; the object of the verb is Israel, understood as the patriarch himself. The midrash has already introduced the setting with a radically new idea: because of this exchange between Jacob and his sons, the people of Israel, the Jewish people, earned the privilege of reciting the Sh'ma in our worship! It concludes with the lesson that when we fulfill the command to recite the Sh'ma , we are continuing the tradition they established! The second question (How were the bones of Joseph discovered?) recognizes that four biblical generations had passed since the death of Joseph and assumes that the location of Joseph's bones had been forgotten by the Israelites.

"And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the Children of Israel, saying, 'God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you' (Genesis 50:25)" (Exodus 13:19)

And how would Moses, our master, have known where Joseph was buried?

They said: Serah the daughter of Asher survived from that generation. Moses went to her, and said to her, "Where is Joseph buried?" She said to him, "The Egyptians made a casket of metal for him, and they sunk it in the Nile River, so that its waters would be blessed."

Moses went and stood on the bank of the Nile and said, "Joseph, Joseph! The hour has arrived that the Holy One, blessed be He, swore to redeem Israel, and [the time to fulfill] the oath that you adjured on Israel [to remove and take your bones to the Land of Israel] has arrived. Now, God's presence and Israel are detained because of you! If you would reveal yourself, it would be good, but if not, then we are released from your oath!"

Immediately, Joseph's casket surfaced.

(Tractate Beshallah, 20:3, Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, trans. W. David Nelson [Philadephia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006], p. 82)

In explaining how the bones were discovered, the midrash utilizes Serah, the daughter of Asher, famous for her longevity, who knew where Joseph's bones were located: in the Nile, in a metal casket, placed there by the Egyptians. In this midrash, Moses performs a miracle by threatening to annul the oath made to Joseph, thus forcing the bones in the metal casket to float! 

Rabbinic tradition often overlooks both history and time as we understand them. Biblical verses from very different contexts are linked to provide new settings for old incidents, and out of the new settings we find the basis of continuing Jewish practice or understanding how our people survived. From this perspective, Parashat Va-y'chi is truly a mixture of narrative and poetry, of blessings and curses, of promises and anxiety about the future.