D’var Torah for Parashat Vayechi 5781
The story of Joseph is well known as a story of sibling rivalry carried to an extreme. The relationship between Joseph and his brothers is fraught with jealousy and vengeance. It does come to what is, at least on the surface, a peaceful conclusion as Joseph welcomes his brothers to Egypt and they participate together in the burial of their father Jacob. However, the memory of the conflict seems to linger throughout the conclusion of the story.
But, in addition to being a tale about siblings, the Joseph story is also a story about a parent and a child. The relationship between Jacob and Joseph is truly at the heart of the narrative in so many ways.
Joseph is identified as Jacob’s favorite son from the outset of the story. The Torah explains that this is because Joseph was “ben zikkunim”, the son of his father’s old age. But, Rashi teaches a text from Bereshit Rabbah that explains these words to refer to the fact that Joseph’s “ziv ikunim”, the appearance of his face, was similar to Jacob’s.
Jacob’s similarity to Joseph is reflected in several traditions. One refers to the verse near the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev in which read: Eleh Toldot Ya’akov Yosef ben sh’va esrei shana: “This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old and was an apprentice to his brothers”. The Midrash points out that the juxtaposition of the names of Jacob and Joseph next to each other shows that the two lived lives which were similar. The midrash teaches that they both were one of two children born of their mother, each had siblings who hated him, each had dreams, each went down to Egypt and the list goes on.
As we begin to read this week’s parasha of Vayechi bringing to an end the story of the life of Jacob, there is an unusual curiosity in the text. The Torah portion begins with the statement that Jacob lived in Egypt for seventeen years. The Torah then continues to tell the story of the last days of Jacob as he blesses his children and his grandsons.
Is it just a coincidence that the same number is used to designate Joseph’s age at the time of his dreams and Jacob’s length of time living in Egypt? Perhaps it is. But it could also be a deliberate point to once again unite the story of father and son.
Joseph was seventeen when his father sent him to bring him back reports on how the brothers were faring. Jacob did not see Joseph again until he was brought down to Egypt by the brothers seventeen years before his death. So, Joseph spent the first seventeen years of his life with his father and Jacob spent the last seventeen years of his life with his son.
The parallelism here is impossible to ignore.
But these two sets of seventeen years are completely different.
The first seventeen years are spent in the land of Canaan, Jacob’s home. Jacob is making vital, life changing decisions on behalf of Joseph, first giving him the coat of many colors and then sending him off to “spy” on his brothers even though he was aware of their hatred for him.
The second set of seventeen years happen in Egypt, a foreign country to Jacob, but one which Joseph knows well. He, the son, is in charge. He tells his family where they will live and arranges the meeting between his father and Pharaoh. While it is not said in so many words, reading between the lines of the story in the Torah, you can see that Jacob is not comfortable in Egypt and is trying to hold on to any sense of parental authority he can. His conversation with Pharaoh centers on his own life rather than on Joseph and he insists on blessing his grandchildren, calling them his own and making the determination that the younger will be the greater of the two against Joseph’s wishes.
There is an interesting commentary on the first words of this parasha. Vayechi Ya’akov. Jacob lived in the land of Egypt. The earlier parasha which begins with the mention of Joseph being seventeen years old opens with the words: “Vayeshev Ya’akov”, Jacob dwelled in the land of Canaan. This commentary explains that as long as Jacob was in the land of Canaan, he was “dwelling” which has a sense of permanence and meaning. But “vayechi”, he lived, indicates that he merely existed in Egypt. Living outside of Canaan was meaningless to Jacob. He could only truly thrive in Canaan.
Certainly there is something more to this difference than just the location in which the years took place. In coming down to Egypt, Jacob finds himself in a role he did not expect to be in and is not comfortable with. He is clearly not the leader of the family now. He is, in fact on Joseph’s turf, living in the atmosphere that Joseph had created for himself, struggling to find ways to make an impact and to make personal decisions according to his perspective. Rather than thriving in his homeland, he is in strange territory with an unfamiliar identity.
This story should sound familiar to many.
The experience of an aging parent coming to live near a child can be tremendously moving and beautiful. It can be pragmatic as well. For the parent, it means that there is someone to care for them as he or she ages and that brings a sense of security and comfort. In addition, it could mean a deeper relationship with grandchildren or great grandchildren and that can be so lovely for all. For the child, it can mean fulfilling the mitzva of “honoring your father and mother” and returning the dedication and care received many years before. It can also result in less fear of a middle of the night phone call from a distant parent.
But it is not always easy and those of us who have experienced this reality from either perspective know that while the positives clearly outweigh the negatives, it is not a completely rosy picture.
My mother moved from Boston to Ann Arbor, one year after my father died. It was a wise decision on her part and one which we enthusiastically supported. She did make a life for herself here, but her health deteriorated precipitously during the first year and limited her ability to live her life fully here in Michigan.
But, during the three and a half years she lived here, while there were great moments of joy as she got to know her grandchildren (and our animals) so much more than she would have from such a distance, it was obvious that there were parts of her life that were uncomfortable for her.
While she certainly appreciated my taking her to doctor’s appointments, she didn’t want me to sit in with the doctor as he explained her health situation and prognosis. That was her opportunity to express her independence and we respected that to the degree that we could.
While she certainly appreciated it when I took her to do errands, she would often say: “You drive through these streets like you know where you’re going so well.” I would laugh and remind her that I had lived in Ann Arbor for 14 years before she moved here. But, in retrospect, I know what she was really saying: “This isn’t Boston. This isn’t home and never will be.”
While she loved coming to services and had great nachas listening to me speak from the bima, she was never comfortable calling for the senior taxi and having to accept an offer of a ride home when she had driven a car since she was a teenager.
We loved having my mother near us, but I don’t know that I was always as sensitive to her situation as I should have been. I certainly knew it was difficult for her, but I didn’t always consider those difficulties on a day-to-day basis.
The lesson is that this experience which so many go through, as beautiful and necessary as it is, can be a great challenge for the parents who must uproot themselves from the place they know and the role they have played for so many years and live in another person’s place and often by another person’s rules.
The seventeen years that Jacob spent with Joseph in Egypt must have come as a tremendous joy for a father who had assumed the worst about his son for so many years (and why Joseph didn’t try to contact him to ease his suffering during those years is a great mystery). But perhaps the challenges of that time that made them less than ideal contributes to the idea that he was merely “living” in Egypt, not thriving.
I am keenly aware of the fact that many suffer the loss of parents before these decisions have to be made. I am also aware that for whatever reason, not all parents are in the position to move to share their lives directly with their adult children and their families. But, for those who do have this experience, helping aging parents live with respect and truly thrive rather
than just “live” in this new arrangement is a responsibility for children.
The first years can never be the same as the last years but with sensitivity and care, they can be beautiful as well.