When did Ya’akov start ‘living’?
(47,28) “And Ya’akov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years, and Ya’akov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years.”
It is very unusual to find in the Tanach the words ‘he lived’ used in connection with a place or a country. It is usually used by itself, like in parshas Noach “So-and-so lived after he had begotten…”. The normal word to use with places is ‘dwelling’, and so it should have said “Ya’akov dwelled in the land of Egypt seventeen years”.
However, in the gemora Yoma 71a Chazal asked on the posuk in Mishlei 3:2 “For length of days, and years of life and peace, they shall add to you” - are there then years of life and years not of life? Said R. Elazar, these refer to the years of a person’s life which are changed from bad to good. Therefore, since Ya’akov’s life until now had not been called ‘life’ due to all the hardships he had suffered, and only now, from the time he dwelled in Egypt, did he start ‘living’, therefore the Torah used the language “And Ya’akov lived ’’, instead of dwelled, to teach that his life began now, “in the land of Egypt”.
Will a person die even if he never sinned?
(47,29) “And the days of Yisrael drew near towards death, and he called to his son, to Yosef, and he said to him…”
The Midrash says that our posuk is explained by the posuk in Chronicles Ⅰ 29:15 “For we are strangers before you…like a shadow are our days on the earth”. Would that they were like the shadow of a wall, or like the shadow of a tree! But no, “his days are like a passing shadow” (Psalms 144:4) - they are like the shadow of a bird as it is flying. “…and there is no hope” - nobody can hope that he will not die. It seems that the Midrash was bothered by the expression of our posuk “and the days of Yisrael drew near towards death” - why is it correct to say that his days were drawing near?
But there is a dispute in the gemora Shabbos 55a, where one opinion holds that there is no death or suffering without sin, and the other opinion holds that there can be death and suffering even without sin. The gemora refutes the first opinion, and therefore concludes that a person will die even though he never sinned, due to the spiritual filth that the serpent implanted in Adam when he caused him to sin by disobeying Hashem‘s command, which henceforth made it the nature of all humans to die. Thus death starts immediately when a person is born, and every second that passes he approaches death, because that is his nature. Some commentaries have similarly explained the posuk in Koheles 7:1 “the day of his death from the day of his birth”, that immediately from the day of his birth starts the day of his death. Sinilarly, the posuk 12:5 “for man is going to his everlasting home” means that he is going there from the day of his birth.
But this is only if we say that a person will die even without having sinned. Only then would we say that a person starts to die from birth little by little, until the time comes when he dies completely. But if we say that a person never dies unless he has sinned, then death is not natural and inevitable. Thus, from when a person is born until the time that he sins, he is not going towards the day of his death, because perhaps he will never sin, and so never die. Only when he does sin is death suddenly decreed upon him.
This is the intention of the Midrash when it said: Would that our days were like the shadow of a wall, or of a tree - would that it at least be that there is no death without sin, like the shadow of a wall. Because as long as the wall is standing there is no certainty that it will fall and its shadow will cease. Rather it is possible that it will stand for a very long time, unless somebody decides to destroy the wall. Similarly by man, if we say there is no death without sin, then as long as he does not sin his life span is indeterminate, like the shadow of the wall. Only when he sins, is death decreed upon him and he will die. But as long as he does not sin, it not correct to say that every moment he is drawing closer to death.
But the Midrash continues that in truth our days are like the shadow of a flying bird, where from the time that the bird begins its flight, we know for certain that it will not fly for ever, but rather that it plans to fly to a certain place. And we know also that its shadow as it flies will not last forever, and that the further it flies, the closer it approaches its desired target where it will rest. There is death without sin, says the Midrash, and therefore immediately when he is born we know that he is flying towards his eternity, and the flight will definitely finish at some time. From the day of birth he begins to die.
Therefore, concludes the Midrash, nobody can hope that he will not die, If there was no death without sin, then a person could hope that he might not die, since he might never sin. But since the Midrash has determined that death is part of nature, there is never any hope that the one will not die.
This then is how the Midrash explained the expression “the days of Yisrael drew near towards death”. That if death was not inevitable, then it would be incorrect to say that the days were drawing closer to death, since death is not dependent on days at all. But since death is natural, then every day a person lives he draws closer to death, just like a bird flying to its destination, and therefore the language of the posuk is correct.
With this it is possible to explain the gemora in Moed Koton 25b, where Rav Ashi said to Bar Kippok: On that day (when I die) how will you eulogize me? He answered: If a flame can fall on a cedar, what can the hyssop of the wall do? And Bar Avin proposed: Cry for the ones who have lost (the mourners), and not for the one who is lost (the departed). Rav Ashi became upset at both of their eulogies, and their feet became inverted (as a Divine punishment). The Marhasha explains how their punishment was measure for measure, but his words are difficult to accept.
Rather, it seems to me that both these two Rabbis held that there is no death without sin, and thus they held that it is not inevitable that Rav Ashi will die, but rather it would be due to a sin that he committed. Therefore, Bar Kippok compared him to a cedar, similar to the Midrash's comparison to the shadow of a tree, implying that as long as the tree was standing it was not certain that it would be felled by fire, and it is possible that it would stand forever. So too a person, that as long as he lives he is like a cedar, and he is not destined to die; only when he sins. And the second Rabbi, although he did not wish to compare him to a tree, compared him to a lost article. His intention was to say that as long as the object is in the owner's possession it is not destined to get lost, but it can happen that it gets lost. So too the Tzaddik - as long as he is alive he is not destined to die, but once he sins he will die.
For this reason Rav Ashi was upset, that they would say about him that he did not die a natural death, but rather it was due to a sin. Because he held that there is death without sin, and a person is not like a cedar at all. Rather he is like a flying bird, that from the day that he is born he is going to die, because that is his nature. Therefore they were punished measure for measure, because in truth a person is going towards his death, but they changed him from somebody who is going to somebody who is not going, and therefore their feet were inverted, to change them from going to not going.
Why did Ya’akov not wish to be buried in Egypt?
(47,30) “I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave…”
It would seem to make more sense if Ya’akov had first said “I will lie with my forefathers”, (which is a euphemism, meaning I am going to die), and then said “please do not bury me in Egypt”, which he had said in the previous posuk.
But we can explain this according to the Midrash which says that R. Elazar saw a coffin after it had arrived in Eretz Yisrael from abroad, and he applied to it the posuk in Yirmeyohu 2:7 “and you came and contaminated My land”, because a corpse contaminates with spiritual uncleanliness. On this the Nezer HaKodesh queried: Were not Ya’akov and Yosef buried in Yisrael after they had died elsewhere? He answered in the name of the Zohar that tzaddikim do not contaminate when they are dead. He writes further that this is why it says “and I will lie with my forefathers” - Ya’akov is giving Yosef the reason why he is commanding him to carry him after his death to Eretz Yisrael, and why he should not be worried that he will contaminate Eretz Yisrael, because ‘lying with one's forefathers’ is the expression used with the death of tzaddikim. Therefore, “you shall carry me out of Egypt”.
But according to this there is a problem - it says in Iyov 15:15 “Behold, He does not believe in His holy ones” - because even His holy ones cannot be guaranteed to remain free of sin until they die. R. Yochanan, the High Priest, served for eighty years in the Beis Hamikdash, but subsequently became a Sadducee! And Ya’akov himself was not confident that he was a complete Tzaddik, and so he had to have been concerned that he would sin before he died, and thus not be fitting to be buried in Eretz Yisrael because he would contaminate it.
However, the Midrash mentions three reasons why Ya’akov commanded Yosef not to bury him in Egypt. The first was because Egypt was destined to be smitten with the plague of lice, which affected also the ground. The second was in order that the Egyptians will not make him an idol. And third was because in the future the dead of Eretz Yisrael will rise first. Now, according to the first two reasons it would have been sufficient just to bury him outside of Egypt. Only according to the third reason would he have to be buried specifically in Eretz Yisrael.
Therefore, since Ya’akov was in doubt that perhaps he would yet sin and not be fitting for burial in Eretz Yisrael, he asked Yosef that at the very least “please do not bury me in Egypt”. Even if I’m not fitting to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, please bury me in some other country. But then Ya’akov continued: “I will lie with my forefathers”, that is, but if I will merit to lie with my forefathers, and not ‘die’, meaning that I will not have sinned and I will have left this world a Tzaddik, then “you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their grave”, in Eretz Yisrael.
Why was Yosef permitted to swear?
(47,30) “…And he said: I will do as you say. And he said: Swear to me! And he swore to him.”
The words “to me” and “to him” appear to be superfluous - it should have simply said “Swear! And he swore”.
A simple explanation would be like the gemora in Shevuos, where it says that when a person makes an oath in Beis Din, he has to declare that he is making the oath according to the understanding of the Beis Din. This is done in order to avoid trickery. For example, a person might swear that he didn’t steal, but he has in mind that he means during the last hour, and therefore his oath is not false. But by swearing according to the understanding of Beis Din, then when he says that he didn’t steal, it means what the Beis Din understands it to mean - that he didn’t steal at any time. So too here, Ya’akov was telling Yosef to swear to him according to Ya’akov’s understanding, and he swore to him according to Ya’akov’s understanding.
But there is another way we can explain it. Because really it is forbidden to make an oath, even about something which is true. But for a mitzvah it is permissible to swear, like it says in the gemora Nedarim: One can swear to fulfil a mitzvah. However, this is only true of somebody who is afraid that his evil inclination will overpower him, and he feels that without the oath he won’t be able to withstand the temptation. Only then is it permissible to swear in order to commit himself to the right action. As Chazal taught, Yosef swore to his evil inclination, and so too did Boaz. But somebody who knows himself that he will be able to fulfil the mitzvah even without an oath, then it becomes like one who is swearing to do a non-mitzvah, and is therefore forbidden to swear.
Therefore Yosef said: I feel that I can fulfil your command without an oath, and therefore it is forbidden for me to swear. To this Ya’akov responded, that although it is possible that he is certain about himself, and feels that he will fulfil Ya’akov’s words without an oath, nevertheless, Ya’akov is unable to know Yosef’s mind, because a person does not know what is in his friend’s heart. Therefore, despite Yosef’s self-knowledge, Ya’akov’s mind would not be at peace unless Yosef swears to him. Thus, since appeasing his father and calming his mind is itself a mitzvah, it was permissible for him to swear.
This is what Ya’akov is saying: “Swear to me”, for my sake, to calm my mind, which for you is a mitzvah and therefore permissible. “So he swore to him” - only to appease his father, but not because he otherwise needed to swear.
Why did Ya’akov bow towards the head of the bed?
(47,31) “…and Yisrael bowed down towards the head of the bed.”
Rashi explained here: “and Yisrael bowed down” - (although the lion is king) when it’s the fox’s hour, bow down to him. “Towards the head of the bed” - he turned himself towards the Shechinah. But this seems to be a contradiction!
But we can explain the reason Ya’akov why bowed down to the Shechinah at this point from the gemora in Sanhedrin 2a (Yerushalmi), which said on the posuk in Tehillim 10:3 “the robber who blesses, blasphemes Hashem”, that anyone who blesses Yehudah who said “What gain is there…”, is blaspheming Hashem. (Yehudah suggested to his brothers that they not kill Yosef, but instead they should sell him). We explained this gemora in our sefer Tehillos Yisrael on Tehillim 27, that the correct approach is to say that Hashem put this idea in Yehudah’s heart, but not that he thought of it himself. One who blesses Yehudah saying that it was his idea to do this, and it was not Hashem’s doing, is blaspheming Hashem.
However, this concept is only true of a king or a ruler, as it says in Mishlei 21:1 “A king’s heart is like rivulets of water in Hashem’s hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it”. That is, Hashem controls a king’s freewill. Therefore with Yehudah who was a king, and whose freewill was therefore in Hashem’s control, it is not correct to give thanks to him, but to Hashem. But with respect to an ordinary person, who is in control of his freewill, it is correct to attribute his good deeds to him, and not to Hashem. For this reason the gemora does not say one who is blesses Reuven, (who first saved Yosef from being killed by having him thrown in the pit instead), is a blasphemer, since Reuven was not a king, and so it is quite correct to bless him.
Here also, Yosef was a king and so not in control of his freewill. Therefore Ya’akov bowed down to the Shechinah, to give thanks to Hashem for placing in Yosef’s heart his agreeing to bring him to Eretz Yisrael.
But there is a problem with this scenario, because Ya’akov was Yosef’s father, and with respect to his father Yosef was only an ordinary person, not a king Therefore, his agreeing was due to his own freewill, and if so, why did Ya’akov bow down to the Shechinah?
Therefore, Rashi explained that when it is the fox’s hour, bow to him, and therefore even Ya’akov subjugated himself before Yosef, as if he was a king also over him. Thus, Yosef was not in control of his freewill, and so Ya’akov bowed down to the Shechinah to give thanks to Hashem, for placing in Yosef’s heart the agreement to his request.
What was so unusual about Yosef visiting his father?
(48,2) “And (someone) told Ya’akov and said: Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you. And Yisrael summoned his strength and sat up on the bed.”
The word “behold” in this posuk implies that something new was happening here, implying that Yosef was accustomed never to go to his father.
We can explain why this was so from what the poskim write about the Maharam from Rottenburg, that from the day that he rose to prominence as a great sage he did not visit his father, nor did he wish that his father should visit him. The reason was because his father was an ordinary person, and it is a disgrace to the Torah for a great Torah sage to stand up for someone who is not a Torah sage, and not everybody who might see him stand for his father would know that it was his father.
But in our case, Yosef‘s father, Ya’akov, was a great person. However, Yosef was concerned that if he came to his father, his father would want to honour him as befits a king, and to stand before him. Indeed, we see here that when Ya’akov was told of Yosef’s imminent arrival, he struggled to sit up. Therefore, Yosef refrained from coming to his father, in order that his father would not need to honour him each time. But on the other hand, he loved for his father to visit him, because his father was a great Tzaddik, and it was fitting for Yosef to honour Ya’akov by standing for him.
Therefore, whenever Ya’akov needed Yosef, he would go to him, and not the other way round. But now Ya’akov was ill and could not go to Yosef, and so Yosef was forced to go to him. Therefore it says “and it was told to Ya’akov: Behold” - Look! Something new! - “your son Yosef is coming to you”, something that has never happened before, since Yosef was not accustomed to come to Ya’akov.