The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Vayechi: Bring my remains back to Israel

In this week's Torah portion, the last in the book of Genesis, the story of Joseph ends, and the story of Moses is set up. In last week's Torah portion, Jacob and his descendants settle in Goshen, in Egypt, to escape the famine that is ravaging the land of Canaan. His son, Joseph, has become the vizier to the Pharaoh, and has invited them to live with him in plenty. Jacob has told his sons upon hearing the news that Joseph is alive that he wanted to see him one last time before he died. Now that they are reconciled, Jacob is ready to give up the ghost.

Upon his deathbed, Jacob asks Joseph to ensure that his remains will be buried in the cave where Abraham and Isaac are buried. Joseph agrees, but Jacob insists that he swear an oath. Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to be blessed by their grandfather. Jacob adopts them, which is very strange. He tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh are to be considered his sons, rather than Joseph's, and tells him that any further children he has are to be Joseph's, and are to inherit through their older brothers. Joseph places his sons before Jacob in order of their birth, with Manasseh (the older) on Jacob's right, and with Ephraim (the younger) on Jacob's left. But Jacob crosses his hands, giving the blessing of the oldest child to Ephraim. Joseph moves to uncross Jacob's hands, but Jacob insists that the blessings be reversed. He prophesies that Ephraim will become a great nation. This is especially odd because Judges 12: 6 tells us that Israel fought a war against the Ephraimites, and slew 42,000 of them in a single battle.

In any case, Jacob blesses Joseph as well, and tells him that his bones will end up in his ancestral land. Indeed, when Jacob died, the Egyptians embalmed his corpse, and escorted it to the Cave of the Patriarchs at Machpelah where it was buried. Interestingly, Joseph died before his other brothers, and before he died, he asked them to promise to bury him there, too.

On his deathbed, Joseph prophesies to his brothers that at some time in the future, God will lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and back to the land promised to their ancestors, and at that time, they must bring Joseph's remains with them. When he dies, the Egyptians embalm him and place him in a sarcophagus.

My rabbi informed me of a midrash about Serah, the daughter of Asher. Serah is the only granddaughter mentioned among the grandchildren of Jacob in the previous Torah portion [Genesis 46: 17]. Because of the patriarchal nature of society in the time of the Torah, women are rarely mentioned in the Torah, unless they have done something extraordinary, like the daughters of  Zelophehad, Malhah, Noa, Hogia, Milcah and Tizrah, who ask Moses a question about Torah that he cannot answer, forcing him to consult with God in their behalf, creating the first inheritance for women in the Bible. Serah bat Asher is also mentioned in Numbers 26: 46 during the census of those Israelites who will enter the land of Israel after the forty years of wandering, where she would have been over 440 years old. The Talmud tells us that she lived the entire time, and was the one who reminded Moses not to leave Egypt without Joseph's remains:
But whence did Moses know the place where Joseph was buried? — It is related that Serah, daughter of Asher, was a survivor of that generation. Moses went to her and asked: 'Dost thou know where Joseph was buried?' She answered him, 'The Egyptians made a metal coffin for him which they fixed in the river Nile so that its waters should be blessed'. [Babylonian Talmud: Sotah 13a].
The midrash suggests that Serah bat Asher lived before the Israelites went down to Egypt, and lived long enough to leave Egypt with them, and survived the journey and returned to Israel with the tribe of Asher. Taken as a legend, her life provides a marvelous continuity for the children of Israel.

There are lots of stories about Serah bat Asher. One legend suggests that it was she who informed Jacob that Joseph was alive. Fearing upsetting the old man, she composed a tune and played it on the lyre, and inserted the news in the lyrics of her song. Jacob was so moved that he blessed her, and said to her "may you never die." As a result, she lived on the earth for a long time, and like Enoch and Elijah, entered the afterlife while still bodily alive. She was the one who first listened to Moses when he returned to Egypt after witnessing the Burning Bush. A final legend suggests that she departed from the world when the tribe of Asher was exiled from Israel by Shalmaneser V of Assyria during the conquest of Samaria.

It is customary in Torah study, when a student or group of students finishes studying a book of Torah, to say: chazak chazak v'nitchazek. This could be translated as "Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened."
חזק חזק ונתחזק

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