Torah Portion of the Week: Dead Man Walking

Parashat Vayigash.

'Joseph Forgives His Brothers,' an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.
'Joseph Forgives His Brothers,' an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Wikimedia Commons

Joseph’s story is included within Jacob’s. In textual time, Joseph dies only a few verses after his father. Although it is not surprising that a son’s life is intertwined with his father’s, this is a special case: Both Jacob and Joseph teeter between life and death. We will read about their deaths next week but in this week’s portion, Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27), Jacob already sums up his life with incredible bitterness: “The years of my sojourn [on earth] are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Gen. 47:9).

Jacob says this on arriving in Egypt, and in response to Pharaoh’s question. The monarch graciously asks how old Jacob is, and it is doubtful whether he expected such a frank answer from Joseph’s father. Jacob measures his life quantitatively and qualitatively: “Few and hard” have been his days. His comparing his accomplishments with his ancestors’ recalls another dissatisfied biblical character, Elijah the Prophet: “He … prayed that he might die. ‘Enough!’ he cried. ‘Now, O Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers’” (1 Kings 19:4). Like Elijah, Jacob hovers between life and death, or between the desire to live, on the one hand, and despair and the desire to die, on the other.

Believing “Joseph was torn by a beast” (Gen. 37:33), Jacob sinks into endless grief: “All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.’ Thus his father bewailed him” (37:35). The descent into Sheol, a mythological metaphor for death, parallels Joseph’s apparent death.

In a chapter on Joseph in his “The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son,” Jon D. Levenson notes the similarity between Joseph’s descent into the pit and the descent into Sheol. The same parallel appears in Psalm 30, where the psalmist thanks God for his rescue: “O Lord, You brought me up from Sheol, preserved me from going down into the Pit” (Psalms 30:4).

Jacob becomes a dead man walking. Meanwhile, Joseph becomes viceroy of Egypt and demands that his brothers, who have arrived there to obtain food, bring him Benjamin. Unaware that it is his son Joseph who is demanding this, Jacob responds: “Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!” (Gen. 42:36).

Responding to Reuben’s bizarre suggestion – that, if he, Reuben, fails to protect Benjamin, he will allow Jacob to kill his own two sons – Jacob declares: “My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief” (Gen. 42:38).

Although Jacob rejects consolation for Joseph’s death, the argument over the demand of the Egyptian viceroy – ironically, Joseph himself – reveals that Jacob still has one reason to live: Benjamin. Refusing to lose him as well, Jacob asserts that Benjamin’s death will send him – Jacob – “to Sheol in grief.” Astutely comprehending Jacob, Judah obtains his permission to take Benjamin. The dialogue between them appears toward the end of last week’s Torah portion, and this week’s begins with Judah describing the dialogue to Joseph in an attempt to prevent Benjamin’s incarceration and to thereby save their father’s life.

Judah ends his monologue with a description of Jacob’s anticipated death should Benjamin not be returned to him: “Now, if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us – since his own life is so bound up with his – when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will send the white head of your servant our father down to Sheol in grief…. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!” (Gen. 44:30-34). Now it is Judah, not Jacob, who presents the danger of Jacob’s descent into Sheol if he loses Benjamin. On hearing this, “Joseph could no longer control himself” (Gen. 45:1). He discloses his identity to his brothers, with the same breath, verifying whether Jacob is still alive: “Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still well?’” (45:3).

Learning that Joseph is alive, Jacob is again caught between life and death. Initially, “His heart went numb, for he did not believe them” (Gen. 45:26); however, after being ultimately persuaded that Joseph is alive, Jacob recovers: “the spirit of their father Jacob revived” (45:27). The first sentence he now utters links his life and death with Joseph’s: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die” (45:28). When Jacob departs for Egypt, God promises him that Joseph will be present when he dies: “I myself will go down with you to Egypt … and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Gen. 46:4).

The reunion with Joseph revitalizes Jacob, but also enables him to die. On meeting his son, Jacob tells him: “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive” (Gen. 46:30). Joseph’s question to his brothers “Is my father still well?” (the literal translation of which is “Is my father still alive?”) is now in effect answered by Jacob: “you are still alive,” although, with that statement, Jacob indicates that his own death is near because he has again seen Joseph – and not despite that fact. An optimistic interpretation of this statement is that Jacob has been comforted and can now die peacefully, without descending “to Sheol in grief.”

Another possibility is that Jacob’s grief over Joseph was so great that even the latter’s “resurrection” cannot revive him. The retroactive removal of the reason for that grief cannot restore Jacob’s previous state of mind. Although Jacob lives another 17 years after reaching Egypt, he feels his life is over. Immediately after his reunion with Joseph, Jacob allows himself to sum up his life with the aforementioned reply to Pharaoh: “Few and hard have been the years of my life.”

All biblical quotations are taken from the JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published 1985.