Vayechi: Subtexts and Subtleties
Post-Parshah Points: Vayechi
Some late-breaking observations on this past week's parsha.
The midrash tells us that Yosef was concerned that he would not be be able to fulfil his promise to bury his father in the holy land, because Pharaoh would not allow him to leave Egypt, even temporarily. Yosef is forced to proceed carefully and even resort to intimations of blackmail. Although in the text, Pharaoh's reluctance to permit his vizier to travel abroad is not apparent from his simple positive response to Yosef's plea (Gen 50:6), it perhaps can be inferred from the large retinue of Egyptian leadership, with associated military backup, that was sent along with the funeral procession (v. 7, 9). Was this a gesture to show honor to Yaakov, or was it a stratagem to ensure Yosef's prompt return to duty? Maybe a little of both.
Another hint that Yosef had to proceed carefully in his travel plans can be seen from the embalming procedure used for Yaakov. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan points out, quoting Herodotus, that the typical, full-fledged embalming process required 70 days, but Yaakov was only given a partial, 40-day embalming (v. 3) to preserve him for the anticipated journey. Yet the same verse tells us that Egypt mourned Yaakov for the full 70 day period. It seems that Pharaoh and his people assumed Yaakov had gotten the full mummification treatment in preparation for being entombed in Egypt, and Yosef allowed them to believe this until he was ready to present his case for a temporary exit visa.
Per the midrash, one of the arguments mounted by Yosef to Pharaoh was that Yaakov had extracted a solemn vow to bury him in Canaan (47:29-31). It is interesting to note the difference between the way Yaakov presented this request to Yosef, versus his later statements when giving his other sons the same instructions. When speaking to Yosef, Yaakov omitted the specific burial location he desired, just requesting that it be "with his fathers". Yet with all the brothers present (49:29-32), Yaakov was much more explicit; he specified the Ma'aras Hamachpelah, gave its location and purchase history, and even listed those buried there previously, including his wife Leah.
The reason for these different approaches seems clear. When speaking to Yosef alone, Yaakov glossed over the specifics, showing sensitivity regarding Yosef's likely disappointment that Yaakov was not going to be buried next to Yosef's mother - and his own favored wife - Rachel. He seems to share this regret himself, describing to Yosef in poignant detail (48:7) why Rachel had to be buried elsewhere due to her sudden and untimely death. On the other hand, when speaking to the full retinue of brothers, the majority of whom (8 out of 12) were either sons or surrogate sons of Leah, Yaakov felt it appropriate to disclose the full details of his burial plans, and even to mention explicitly that he was to be interred with Leah.
A somewhat related item of note is the evidence of the close relationship between Yaakov and Yosef implied by the wording used this parshah. Several times, Yaakov is identified specifically as Yosef's father, even when grammar or context would demand different phrasings. E.g., in Yaakov's blessing to Yosef, he refers to himself twice (49:25,26) in the third person as "your father" instead of "me". Later, his brothers follow suit, sending a message to Yosef (50:16-17) which calls Yaakov "your father" instead of "our father". Apparently, it was meaningful to Yosef to have his personal connection with Yaakov emphasized in this manner.
This also sheds new light on a curious and much-discussed passage in the previous parshah of vayigash. Immediately after revealing his identity to his brothers, Yosef asks "ha'od avi chai?" - "is my father still alive"? Numerous commentators raise the obvious difficulty: Yosef had already been assured (43:27-28) that Yaakov was well, and had no reason to be asking again. Many answers are given, but the one I have always favored is that Yosef is simply rephrasing the question the way he had wished to all along, with emphasis on the change in pronoun. On the previous occasions Yosef inquired about Yaakov's health, the need to keep his identity secret forced him to use the term "avicha", "your father". Now, with an overwhelming sense of relief, he is finally able to say what meant to all along, "is my father still alive?".