Gathering In: Parashat Vay’hi

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Parashat Vay’hi
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

And Jacob finished charging his sons, and he gathered his feet to the bed and he expired and he was gathered to his people. And Joseph fell upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. 
(Gen. 49:33 – 50:1)

Jacob has completed what he needed to do. He has given his sons much to remember and much to think about. Then he both gathers himself together and lets himself go. He draws his aged body up onto the bed and then gives up his life. The narrator tells us that his own “gathering” (va-ye’esof) of himself – perhaps into a fetal ball – is paralleled by the “gathering (- va-ye’asef) to his people.” Jacob is somehow accepted into the overarching collectivity of  those connected to him who have preceded him into death and those who will follow him in life and death. In Auden’s phrase about Yeats’ death, “The current of his feeling failed; he became. his admirers.” There is a sense of deliberate acceptance of death as a moment in an ongoing flow of time and memory.

But the Torah contrasts the actions of the father with those of the son. Joseph (- Yosef) whose name resonates with the Hebrew words for “gathering in” does not witness his father’s passing with reserve. He cannot control himself (- again – just as he could not control his weeping before his brothers). Rather, he impetuously flings himself upon his father’s dead body, weeps and kisses him. We certainly understand the sorrowful weeping. But, what is the meaning of his kissing his father? Although we may commonly see such expressions of love and grief, we should not ignore the strangeness of it all. What is the purpose of kissing a dead person who cannot feel the loving kiss? Surely there is some element of denial of the death or rebellion against it. In our overwhelming love for the deceased we almost believe that our kiss will restore them to life. What his father accepts and welcomes, Joseph cannot. For a moment Joseph is not willing to allow his father to be “gathered in.” He wishes to bring his father back to him, as he has succeeded in bringing his brothers and father back to himself once before. But it cannot be.

Joseph’s uncontrollable reaction to his father’s calm and deliberate act of dying contrasts also with God’s promise to Jacob as God sought to reassure the Patriarch when he was about to join his long-lost son in Egypt. We recall that God assured Jacob that “And Joseph will place his hand over your eyes.” (Gen. 46:4 - and see last week’s Torah Sparks) The image is one of gentleness and calm. Of acceptance. Jacob is meant to be encouraged by knowing that is son will care for him at his moment of death with tenderness and strength. Perhaps Jacob went to his death believing that God’s promise would be kept. If so, this would count as one last time that he would be deceived. For Joseph does not act as God had predicted.

The young Joseph got himself into a lot of trouble because he did not know how to control himself. But, after he was sold down to Egyptian slavery, he became a person who always controlled himself. He became a person who could patiently listen, a person who could plan for the long term, a person who could overcome temptation or hide his emotions. He became a person who ever comported himself with wisdom and restraint. Right at this moment, however, as his loving and beloved father dies, Joseph will not control his emotions. Just this once, and even against God’s own wishes, he will set himself free.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein


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image:  “that time of the year” © Katie Landry altered and used with permission via Creative Commons License

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Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein

Rabbi David Greenstein arrived at Shomrei Emunah in August 2009 with a rich, broad and deep background as a rabbi, cantor, artist, scholar, and teacher. Being Shomrei’s rabbi, he says, allows him to draw on all of these passions, as well as his lifelong commitment to building Jewish communities.
Rabbi David Greenstein

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