Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg | Go to book overview

VA-YEḤI


The Beginning of Desire

Jacobs' deathbed: weakness and power

Thus Israel settled in the country of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly. Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob's life came to one hundred and forty-seven years. (47:27-28)

Jacob's final period is described as a time of yeshiva and of ḥayyim, of settling down and of living. It is Israel, the man, the family, the nation in germinal form, that finds a niche (va-ye'aḥazu, lit., they were held by it) in Egypt, this land of essential foreignness. There, paradoxically, they flourish, realizing all the blessings of fertility. But it is Jacob, the mortal man, who is described at the opening of the Parsha as "living" in the land of Egypt, an apparent redundancy that releases unexpected resonances.

For if the English word "lived" is ambiguous, its meanings divide, in Hebrew, into the two connotations of "settled, resided" and "was alive." Va-yeḥi, therefore, carries a peculiarly questioning ring, as if to impress a meaning of unexpected, almost incongruous vitality. After those many years of suspended vitality in the darkness of Joseph's absence, Jacob's life is rediscovered and sustained in the land of Egypt. This is the opening statement of the Parsha, its virtual redundancy belied by the force of the word va-yeḥi, "he lived."

This seventeen-year period of grace culminates in the main subject matter of the Parsha: Jacob becomes conscious of approaching death, and communicates his final wishes to his children. In speaking to define a reality that he is about to leave, Jacob is unique among the patriarchs. His is, in fact, the only deathbed scene in Genesis, indeed in the whole Torah.

Abraham's death, for instance, is simply narrated after a summary of his years (25:7-8). As the midrash notices, he conspicuously fails to bless

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