Vayechi: Joseph’s chief virtue

Vayechi: Joseph’s chief virtue

Parshat Vayechi marks the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, “the end of the beginning.” As Jacob’s life draws to a close, he bears faithful witness to two complementary responsibilities: fealty to his forbears and their storied past, as well as active concern and engagement with the future awaiting his descendants.

In the opening verses of the Parshah, Jacob secures a solemn pledge from his son, Joseph: “When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place” (47:30). Jacob’s funerary instructions demonstrate that he wanted his life to be considered in the context of generations past. Jacob was heir to a covenant with God, and took his role as Patriarch, as successor to Abraham and Isaac, very seriously. He understood that how we conduct ourselves, how we bear the human moral load, how we discharge our unique obligations as members of a Covenant People, have a significance extending well beyond our own limited lifespan.

So important was this generational continuity to Jacob, that he repeated his instructions as his final words: “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors…” (49:29). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein comments on this verse, observing that, at this nascent stage of our national history, Israel could hardly be considered a distinct “people.” He explains that “peoplehood” is defined “in the World of Truth” by strength of character and faith in God, traits that predated even Abraham. Reb Moshe specifically identifies the “people” to whom Jacob referred. His chain of tradition included seven worthy forbears: Adam, Seth, Methuselah, Shem, Eber, “and of course” Abraham and Isaac.

Rabbi Feinstein’s commentary on Jacob’s final words calls to mind the insight of a very different community and spiritual leader: Wilma Mankiller, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation (and, notably, the first woman to hold that office). The Cherokee Chief wrote: “When leaders make decisions, they should think of seven generations in front of them, and seven generations in back of them, and the impact of their decisions.”

Anticipating, embodying, and perhaps inspiring Mankiller’s wisdom, Jacob also turns his attention in Parshat Vayechi to future generations and to countless progeny as yet unborn. “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come” (49:1). The Patriarch bestows counsel and personalized blessing (and messages of remonstrance) on his children and grandchildren. In addressing a poetic benediction to his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob emphasizes their shared bond with those who preceded them, and the virtue of a multi-generational perspective on redemption and spiritual identity: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked… bless these boys. In them may my name be recalled, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they become teeming multitudes upon the Earth” (48:15-16). Jacob herewith articulated simultaneous concern for “seven generations in front of him” and “seven generations in back of him.”

Jacob’s fidelity to multi-generation continuity is also cited to explain his decision to lend primacy to grandson Ephraim over his first-born brother Manasseh, reflected in parental blessings to this day: “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (48:20). Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain,  points out that Manasseh’s name means “forgetfulness” (see 41:51). He concludes, “Greater are the blessings of a child who remembers the past and future of which he is a part.”

Jacob apparently succeeded in transmitting his dual sense of history and continuity to Joseph. According to the final verses of the Book of Genesis (50:22-23), Joseph developed a special relationship with his great-grandchildren, “children of the third generation of Ephraim” and “the children of Machir the son of Manasseh.” Joseph also emulated his father’s example by instructing that he, too, be brought back to the Promised Land for burial. Notwithstanding his former, extended, incommunicado absence from Jacob and family, Joseph in the end embraced a meaningful and defining connection to his ancestors: a final gift, perhaps, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he had come to cherish.

Wilma Mankiller’s sage counsel should guide and, indeed, constrain today’s Jewish religious and communal decision makers. What is authentic Jewish living? What truly serves the best interests of all Jacob’s descendants… not just in the short term? Leaders “should think of seven generations in front of them, and seven generations in back of them.” But not leaders (ordained, elected, or self-styled) alone. Parshat Vayechi adjures us: every Jew who wishes to bring blessing to children and grandchildren… and to their children and grandchildren… is wise to embrace the multi-generational vision shared by Yaakov Avinu and Wilma Mankiller. We are but a link between a precious, honored past and an as yet undetermined future legacy. May a principled response to that perspective be our “chief virtue.”

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