The final verse of this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, points back to the beginning of Parashat Vayeshev, which we read several weeks ago.
The earlier portion introduced a section of Genesis that scholars like to call “The Joseph Novella.” It tells a story of family conflict, exile, and reconciliation.
While the Book of Genesis will not officially end until next week’s portion, it could have concluded with this morning’s reading.
In fact, there is a nice literary inclusio formed by the verses at the beginning of Vayeshev in chapter 37 and the ending of Vayigash in chapter 47. Listen closely, as the language is almost identical. The tale begins:
Vayeshev Ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz Canaan.
And Jacob dwelled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan. (Genesis 37:1)
This morning’s portion ends with the words:
Vayeshev Yisrael b’eretz Mitzrayim b’eretz Goshen vaye’achazu vah, vayifru vayirbu me’od.
And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and they took holdings in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. (Genesis 47:27)
The story begins with dwelling, and it ends with dwelling. Only some of the details have changed. In the beginning, it is Ya’akov, or Jacob, who is doing the dwelling. At the end, it is Yisrael, Israel, which is both Jacob’s other name, as well as the name of the Israelite nation. The double-entendre is intentional.
The second difference, of course, is the location where this dwelling is taking place. At first, Jacob settles in the land of Canaan. By the end of the story, he is living in Egypt with his entire extended family.
The final difference is the extra clause at the end of the story. They took holdings in [the land] and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. This is the spot that would make a really nice, upbeat ending to the story. They all lived happily ever after in Egypt.
One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Yohanan, notices that “wherever [the Torah] uses the word vayeshev (“and he dwelled”), it always means [that] trouble [is soon to follow]. (BT Sanhedrin 106a)
Rabbi Yohanan includes several examples, including both of our verses. Immediately after we read about Jacob dwelling in the land of Canaan, we find Joseph tattling on his brothers and taunting them with his dreams.
Immediately after Israel has settled in Egypt, we hear about Jacob on his deathbed. It adds a sour note to the success that Israel has achieved in its new home.
On closer inspection, we do not even need news of Jacob’s illness to identify the ominous tone. God’s blessing to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been that they will have numerous descendants who will inherit and thrive on the land of Canaan.
By the end of Parashat Vayigash, the blessing finally appears to be on its way to reality.
Jacob has been transformed into Israel, the person has become a nation. They have now acquired land holdings, and they are multiplying like rabbits.
The problem is that it is happening in the wrong location. They are not supposed to be in Egypt, but rather in the land of Canaan.
At the beginning of the story, they are in the right place, but the time is not right to thrive. At the end, they may be thriving, but “they are digging in the wrong place.”
Expanding on Rabbi Yohanan’s point, Rabbi Baruch Epstein in Torah Temimah cites a midrash to explain why things go so wrong for Jacob. Whenever a tzadik, a righteous person, tries to settle down and live in peace and quiet, the Satan comes to make his life difficult. (Genesis Rabbah 37:3)
The reason is because a tzadik is not meant to have a life of peace and quiet. A tzadik is here to fix the world and fill its holes. So when Jacob tries to live a quiet life, fate says “no way,” and the tragedy with Joseph ensues.
That also explains why the Book of Genesis does not end after this morning’s Torah portion. By continuing immediately with Jacob on his deathbed, the Torah hints that something is not right with the Israelites’ good life in Egypt. To underscore this point, next week’s Torah portion does not even begin with a new paragraph. It flows continuously from where we stopped this morning.
The righteous never get a break. To be Jewish is to never be complacent. There are always holes to fill. We all can fill the gaps in our knowledge by learning more Torah. We can all do more to alleviate the suffering of others, whether by giving extra tzedakah, or performing additional acts of gemilut chasadim. For all of us, there are mitzvot that we have not yet embraced.
The ironic lesson is, a righteous person is never at peace unless he or she is moving.