Is there an element of Ma’ase Avot Siman L’Banim that Yaakov Avinu can reflect upon in the twilight of his eventful life? This concept, which Ramban suggests is one of the major themes of all of Sefer Breishit, is usually applied to lessons that subsequent generations can draw from the lives and experiences of the Avot. But what of the lives and experiences of the Patriarchs themselves? Might Yaakov have reflected on how his challenges and responses were foreshadowed by the challenges and responses of his predecessors?
When Yosef learns that his father already fragile health has taken a turn for the worse he hurries with his sons to Yaakov’s bedside (Perek 48). It is clear that Yosef does so in order to insure that Yaakov bless Ephraim and Menashe before his death. What is less apparent is what message Yaakov wishes to impart to Yosef when he arrives (passukim 3-7). Why would Yaakov choose to remind Yosef of the promises that Hashem had made to him in Bet El upon his return to the Land of Israel after twenty plus years of exile with Lavan, and more poignantly why does he reference the death and burial of Yosef’s mother, Rachayl?
We must, of course, keep in mind that Yaakov seems to be oblivious to the fact that Yosef is not alone, or at the very least to be unaware of the identity of the two young men accompanying Yosef. This is made plain in the very next passuk (8) which states that Yaakov saw (or perhaps perceived) the sons of Yosef and asked “mi eleh”, “who are these (men)?” Clearly then, Yaakov is directing his comments to Yosef and Yosef alone.
The majority of the classical commentaries tie Yaakov’s words to his insistence that Yosef bury him in Maarat HaMachpela and not in Egypt. These parshanim, including but not limited to Ramban, Radak and Rashbam, suggest that Yaakov is afraid that Yosef will be resentful of this request as Yaakov did not extend the same courtesy to Rachayl. How will Yosef respond to this request knowing that Yaakov buried her by the side of the road? Yaakov looks to preempt this query, and rather defensively explains why more than fifty years earlier this was impossible for him to do. This suggestion certainly seems reasonable. After all, it was only six passukim earlier that Yaakov requests of Yosef to bury him in the land of Israel.
Rav Elchanan Samet (Iyunim b’Parshat HaShavua, second series pp 219-221) poses several cogent questions on this approach. We will just mention two of difficulties that he raises. Firstly, while it is true that Yaakov’s request to Yosef was recorded only six verses earlier, the Mesorah clearly distinguishes between the two stories by separating them with a space (“Petucha”). Moreover, the beginning of our perek (48:1), “VaYehi acharei hadevarim haelaeh”, “And it was after these events”, clearly indicate that we are at the beginning of a new story, unconnected to the story of Yaakov’s request for burial in Ertez Yisrael, which apparently was made weeks or even months earlier.
At the same time, we might add our own question to those posed by Rav Samet. Is it possible that Yaakov’s sense of his son Yosef was so compromised that he would believe that Yosef would begrudge him this wish and question his motives? And even if one would argue that Yosef might be resentful of his father’s behavior at the time of Rachayl’s death, was there no time during the seventeen years that they spent together before Yosef was abducted from his home or the subsequent seventeen years that they spent together in Mitzrayim for Yaakov to have explained his actions to Yosef? Surely Yaakov, who was already so close to Yosef, would have found the opportunity to discuss Rachayl’s death and burial with him.
There are, of course, other possible understandings of Yaakov’s message to Yosef. Meshech Chochma suggests that Yaakov is concerned that Yosef will delay the fulfillment of his oath to bury Yaakov in Maarat HaMachpela. As a result Yaakov confides to Yosef the reason to which he ascribes Rachayl’s death, namely Yaakov’s own laggardness in fulfilling the vow which he took upon himself as he escaped from Eisav’s wrath (perek 28:20-22). Had he fulfilled the terms of that oath immediately upon his return from Haran perhaps Rachayl’s death would have been averted. Hence Yaakov seeks to strengthen Yosef’s resolve to fulfill his oath as quickly as possible. (Interestingly, Rashi (35:1) suggests that Yaakov’s punishment for delaying fulfilling his oath was the kidnapping and rape of Dina).
Of course, fear that Yosef would not fulfill his oath was no idle concern on Yaakov’s part. The Torah’s own description of Yaakov’s death and burial (perek 50) demonstrates how even with Yosef’s active involvement it took months for him to make good on his promise to Yaakov. This also can shed a different light on the famous Rashi (50:6) which, based on the Gemara in Sota, suggests that it was only because of Yosef’s oath that Paro agreed to allow him to bury Yaacov in Ma’arat HaMachpela. The Gemara tells us that when Paro suggested that Yosef abrogate his oath, Yosef threatened Paro that he would also nullify the oath he had taken not to reveal that Paro was unable to speak Hebrew. Based on Meshech Chochma we can understand Yosef’s willingness to challenge Paro on this point, despite the unpleasantness and perhaps even danger involved in standing his ground and threatening Paro. By linking Rachayl’s death to a failure to promptly fulfill his oath, Yaakov had seared the importance of keeping his word into Yosef’s consciousness.
Meshech Chochma’s approach enjoys an additional advantage over the suggestion that Yaakov was defending his actions from Yosef’s potential criticism. As we mentioned in the beginning of our analysis, Yaakov references two events, the promises that Hashem made to him in Bet El when he fulfilled his original vow, and the death of Rachayl. What is the connection between these two events? According to our first suggestion, other than proximity of events there does not seem to be any. If we accept the approach of Mesech Chochma, however, the connection is clear. First Yaakov tells Yosef of the promises he received from Hashem when the deferred oath was finally fulfilled. He then continues with a description of Rachayl’s death, thus referencing the two events which are inextricably linked in his mind.
A different approach, and one which may help us answer the question we began our study with, is developed by Rav Samet based on a somewhat cryptic comment of Rav Saadia Gaon (RSG). In his explanation to passuk 7 RSG comments that Yaakov says the following: “BUT (instead) I buried Rachayl on the road to Beit Lechem and I had no children from that time onwards”. Yaakov seems to be expressing deep disappointment that events did not unfold as he had anticipated. What was Yaakov’s expectation, and how was it frustrated by Rachayl’s unexpected passing? The answer, of course, lies in the promise that Hashem made to Yaakov immediately before Rachayl’s death.
Rav Samet explains that RSG is suggesting that Yaakov understood Hashem’s promise to mean that he would have more children. Hashem’s seemingly emphatic statement (35:11) is “Prei uRevei”, be fruitful and multiply. The implication of this direct language is that this is a blessing to Yaakov himself and not only to his descendants. Yet, with the death of Rachayl, the last of his childbearing wives, any hope that Yaakov had of seeing this blessing fulfilled was now gone. It is only now, when he has come to Egypt, does he understand that this promise is being fulfilled through Yosef’s children, Ephraim and Menashe. Hence Yaakov directly links the promise made to him by Hashem (48:3-4) with his “acquisition” of Yosef’s sons (48:5). What emerges from this explanation is not a defensive Yaakov, attempting to justify himself in Yosef’s eyes, but rather a triumphant Yaakov who finally understands Hashem’s plan and revels in the fulfillment of His divine promise.
We are now in a position to answer the question that we began with. When Yaakov buried Rachayl, beset by both a sense of personal loss as well as a sense that Hashem had abandoned the promise He had so recently made, Yaakov searches for a “maaseh”, a precedent to guide him. The “maaseh” that he finds is none other than Avraham Avinu’s test at the time of the Akeida. Avraham had also been promised that a great nation would descend from him through his son Yitzhak. But that promise seems lost as he dutifully binds Yitzhak to the altar upon which Yitzhak will be sacrificed. Nonetheless, Avraham does not waver from duty or from his trust in Hashem. His grandson Yaakov, drawing inspiration, has found his “siman”, his sign. He too will not waver. And even though Avraham received his answer in a few days, Yaakov will have to wait decades to understand. It is only at the end of his life when he reunites with Yosef in Mitzrayim that the divine plan becomes clear to him. And he shares the joy of seeing that plan being fulfilled with Yosef when he brings Ephraim and Menashe, the bearers of that legacy, to be blessed before Yaakov dies.