Parashat Vayechi / A Chain of Authors

The midrash presents Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David as a chain of authors who shape the corpus of their work through a link with their predecessors.

After each of Jacob’s sons receives a special blessing from their father, the Torah sums up the scene thus: “All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28).

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), is the last one in the Book of Genesis, and the verse cited above is one of the last in the long literary life of our patriarch Jacob. Basing themselves on this verse, the sages expand the literary framework of the stories of the patriarchs, and point to the continuity and legal nature of that framework.

“It is written, ‘and this is it that their father spoke unto them’; the Torah identifies the speaker not as Jacob but rather as ‘their father.’ [Jacob told his sons:] ‘In the future another person will also bless you and will take up from the point where I left off, as it is written, “And this is the blessing [wherewith Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death]” [Deuteronomy 33:1].

“Since Moses opened with the word ‘this,’ as it is written, ‘And this is the blessing,’ I will utter these blessings. When will they be realized? When you receive the Torah, as it is written, ‘And this is the law [which Moses set before the children of Israel]’ [Deut. 4:44]. Moses took up from the point where Jacob left off, as it is written, ‘and this is it that their father spoke unto them’” (Bereisheet Rabbah 100:12).

The Torah refers to the third patriarch not by the name Jacob, but rather simply calls him “their father.” The reason, says the midrash, is that the Torah is alluding to another “father” who will in the future bless Israel. In the midrash, Jacob speaks to his sons and refers to someone else who will bless Israel: Moses.

By its telling, Jacob chooses the Hebrew word vezot (and this) in the opening of the verse “and this is it that their father spoke unto them” as a subtle literary reference to two verses in Deuteronomy: to the beginning of Parashat Vezot Habracha (Deut. 33:1-34:12), which concludes Moses’ long speech in that book, and to the verse in Parashat Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11) – “And this is the law which Moses set before the children of Israel” (Deut. 4:44).

The repetition of the word vezot in the verse in the latter portion is intended to teach the Children of Israel, to inform them when they will be privileged to see the fulfillment of the blessing that their father Jacob is granting them. However, when vezot is used in the verse in Parashat Vezot Habracha, it contains no coded information for the Children of Israel. It is a quiet literary gesture undertaken by Moses vis-à-vis Jacob; Moses chooses to open his blessing with the very same word with which the Torah concludes Jacob’s blessings.

In the midrash, the actions of the patriarchs are measured as literary sequences connected by textual links that enable their framing as independent corpuses – all of Jacob’s writingsalongside all of Moses’ writings. This enables the marking, on the one hand, of the starting and finishing points for Moses and Jacob, respectively, and, on the other hand, of the thread connecting them. This unusual framing is further expanded in the second part of the midrash and is given a title from the Book of Psalms.

“Moses said, ‘I understand more than [or, gain my understanding from] mine elders’ [Psalms 119:100]. When he blessed Jacob, Isaac told him, ‘And God Almighty [bless thee]’ [Gen. 28:3]. What were his final words? As it is written, ‘And Isaac called Jacob’ [Gen. 28:1]. Jacob took up from the point where his father left off, as it is written, ‘And Jacob called unto his sons’ [Gen. 49:1] and concluded his words with ‘vezot.’ As it is written, ‘and this is it that their father spoke unto them.’

“Moses took up from the point where Jacob left off and said ‘vezot.’ As it is written, ‘And this is the blessing.’ What were his final words? As it is written, ‘Happy art thou, O Israel’ [Deut. 33:29]. When he began to praise God with psalms, David took up from the point where Moses left off, as it is written, ‘Happy is the man that ...” [Ps. 1:1]. This is what is meant by ‘I gain my understanding from mine elders’ (Bereisheet Rabbah 100:12).

Moses hinges his literary enterprise on an understanding of his elders. Who are they? The first is Isaac, about whom it is written, “And Isaac called Jacob, and blessed him, and charged him, and said unto him: ‘Thou shalt not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan’” (Gen. 28:1). In this week’s reading, when Jacob wants to bless his sons, the Torah says, “And Jacob called unto his sons.” Thus, the thread continues from Isaac to Jacob. As we have seen, Moses takes up from the point where Jacob leaves off. However, there is also a follow-up to Moses’ final words.

Moses ends his long poem, “And this is the blessing” with the words, “Happy art thou, O Israel, who is like unto thee? a people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and that is the sword of thy excellency” (Deut. 33:29). King David opens the Book of Psalms with the words, “Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1).

The above midrash presents Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David as a chain of authors who shape the corpus of their work through a link with their predecessors. That corpus is a link in a chain where the final words of one person are the first words uttered by another.

This literary motif is not revealed de facto by a later reader but is instead presented in the midrash as a conscious, reflexive gesture that the patriarchs use in order to link up their respective blessings with their predecessors, thereby applying the principle that is contained in the verse “I gain my understanding from mine elders.”

The patriarchs look at their elders, gain understanding from them, link themselves to the final words of their predecessors and, in turn, create, on the basis of those final words, the beginning of their own new blessing.