Parsha Vayechi concludes the saga of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The journey which had begun in what is now northern Iraq came to a conclusion near the Nile Delta. The focus of the Parsha is on the last days of Jacob, his challenging testament to his children, his death and subsequent burial in Hebron at the family tomb in the Cave of Machpela. The Torah describes the very impressive procession that accompanied Jacob’s remains on their journey back to the Promised Lands: “all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all the host of Joseph, and his brethren, and his father’s house… And there went with him both chariots and horsemen; and it was a very great company”. It is apparent that the Egyptians revered Joseph and showed great respect for his father Jacob.
The narrative of Sefer Bereshit is an exposition of a promise and an ominous prophecy that God gave to Abraham. First, there was the promise of a great future: “I will bless you, and make your name great and you shall be a blessing”. This was followed by the dark statement; “know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years”. Ironically, the assurance was never fulfilled in the lifetimes of the Patriarchs, and, the narratives that followed, at least beginning with the birth of Joseph, if not earlier, were directed towards the realization of the latter.
The beginning of the Parsha picks up at a time when Jacob and his descendants had already spent seventeen years in Egypt. The famine that had forced them to flee Shechem had long been over, yet none of them ever returned to the lands that were they are Patrimony. Even their journey to Hebron to bury their father had failed to awaken any wistful feelings for their homeland. Not one of Jacob’s descendants chose to remain in their ancestral lands, preferring, as it appears, to continue to live their lives in the relative comfort of the lands of Goshen in Egypt rather than labour for their own Land, a choice which would plague their descendants for many generations.
This decision, even if only made a by default, founds a great theme of Jewish commentary and a view of Jewish victimhood that would unfortunately resound time and again in the trials and travails of the Jewish people. Traditional Jewish commentators have viewed the Torah as a constantly evolving lesson. Many like the Ramban read and recycled the various narratives of the Torah, to reflect meanings of contemporary situations. In particular, the Ramban opined that everything that had occurred to the Patriarchs and their immediate families, foreshadowed events in later eras in Jewish history.
In his opening commentary to Parsha Vayechi, the Ramban drew a parallel between the descent of the Israelites to Egypt, which led, in time, to generations of oppression and servitude, and, the later death and destruction wrought by the Romans. Jacob’s sons, he said, had indirectly caused the Egyptian exile, through their sale of Joseph to slave traders. Thus began Joseph’s descent into an Egyptian dungeon which was then followed miraculous ascent to power, which in turn created the conditions for the much too comfortable, and presumably permanent, settlement the Children of Israel in Egypt. The Judeans, he concluded, had too initiated the events that lead, in what he viewed as a straight line, to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and much of Judea, and, to the deportation of the population into the Diaspora.
The Ramban, drawing on the pseudo-history attributed to Jossipon (believed by some to be a derivative of the great written histories attributed to Josephus) sketched the evolution of the relationship that grew between Rome and Judea, beginning in 63 BCE with pacts of friendship, political and military support, and ending the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and its environs, and the deportation of a large part of the Jewish population.. The beginnings of the Egyptian exile foreshadowed the Jewish exile at the hands of the Romans and served as the paradigm for most of the cataclysmic events that had thereafter plagued the Jewish people.
Ramban’s analysis does not appear to account for the fact that the Egyptian Exile had been machinated by God, and while its requirement was never clarified in the text of the Torah, nor was there a record of any of Abraham. Isaac, or Jacob seeking an explanation, the experience, however harsh, was clearly a necessary step in God’s plan to make Abraham’s descendents numerous and strong. While the question of the necessity for the Egyptian Exile remains unresolved, the results were and remain clear. God’s role in those events, and equally his role in human history, including unfortunately the Holocaust, still remains an enigma, and still present one of the most challenging theological questions. As well, the realization of God’s covenant with Abraham, the promise to make his descendents numerous and strong, still remains unfulfilled. It appears that our history is far from completion much as our understanding of the God is far from complete.