Parashat Vayehi (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph after he makes his brothers pledge that, when God shall remember them and take them out of Egypt, they will remember him and take his bones back to Israel for burial. I have discussed aspects of the significance of this pledge and act in previous years. (See Sparks for 2015, 2016, 2017)
One thing is clear to Joseph, the family and the reader – Egypt is not really their home. They must eventually return to Canaan. So, as we ponder whether the brothers and their descendants will remember Joseph at that future time, we might ask ourselves a simple question: Why didn’t the brothers simply return to their homes in the land of Israel right after Joseph’s death? What held them back? The famine years had long passed and they were free to go, not yet enslaved to the next Pharaoh. We can understand that Joseph was stuck in Egypt because of his high position in Pharaoh’s court. But, once he died, why didn’t the brothers seize the opportunity to go back home?
It appears that the family, after Joseph’s death, suffered from a leadership vacuum. Even though the other brothers outlived Joseph, none of them – not Judah or Reuven – nor their children felt ready to assume the mantle of family head. None of them took the responsibility to call the growing clan back to their heritage and their home. The reasons for this are not given to us explicitly. We can only surmise. Perhaps the brothers had been too pampered by Joseph’s patronage. Perhaps their sense of guilt and unworthiness that followed from their sin against Joseph sapped their strength.
And yet, the children of Israel, leaderless, seem to flourish in their temporary homestead of Goshen. As the last verse of last week’s Torah reading tells us, they multiply and take hold of the land. (Gen. 47:27) And this will continue to be the case – as we will read next week, at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. (Ex. 1:7) The exuberant vitality of the people is not directed or channeled by a visionary, an elder or a charismatic hero. Such a figure will not appear until God chooses Moses to fill that role. So they stay put, and all is well. Until it isn’t.
A historical model is set up by the Torah, to be repeated later: The people flourish without a leader, then suffer oppression from an outside force, and then are redeemed by a hero who arises and galvanizes them. This is the model followed in the era of the Judges and the era of the Judges, itself, becomes part of a larger example that leads to the establishment of a monarchy.
Is it possible that we, too, are living through a similar process. We are devoid of compelling, unifying leadership. But what subsequent part of the process are we at – the flourishing or the oppression?
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.