Parshat Vayechi: Living With Faith

By Daniel Pinner

"Israel said to Joseph: 'Behold, I am dying. May G-d be with you all, and return you all to the Land of your fathers. And I have personally given you Shchem as one extra portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorite with my sword and with my bow" (Genesis 48:21-22).

This blessing of a special gift which Jacob granted to Joseph is a precursor of Jacob's blessing to all his twelve sons, his charge to each tribe of its unique task, and his tantalizing brief glimpse into the Messianic era. With this blessing, Jacob closes several historical circles. First, it is clear that there is a deep connection between Joseph, Shchem, and the Egyptian exile: The exile began with Joseph being sent to Shchem to look for his brothers 49 years previously (Genesis 37:12); and 233 years later, when the Egyptian exile was finally over and the 40 years sojourn in the Sinai desert was passed, when the children of Israel returned to their Land, the first station after conquering Jericho and its environs was Shchem, and the mountains overlooking it, Mount Eval and Mount Grizim. Immediately upon entering the Land, and before separating to their respective tribal territories, they assembled in Shchem to hear the blessings for obeying the Torah and the curses for forsaking it (Joshua 8:30-35), just as Moses had commanded in the last few days of his life (Deuteronomy 11:29, 27:11).

Nonetheless, an obvious question arises: Why did Israel grant the city of Shchem to Joseph (it was in the territory of Joseph's younger son Efraim)? – after all, it was Simeon and Levi who physically took it with their swords and bows. This closes another historical circle: Efraim and Menashe were Joseph's sons, "whom Osnat, the daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him" (Genesis 41:50). Actually, Osnat was not the biological daughter of Poti-phera: "Pharaoh renamed Joseph Zaphenatch – Paneach, and he gave him Osnat, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, as a wife" (Genesis 41:45), which the Targum Yonatan renders: "…he gave him Osnat, whom Dina bore to Shchem, and he was raised by the wife of Poti-phera, priest of Tanix [On], as a wife". The midrashim are consistent in identifying Osnat as the daughter of Dina whom she bore as a result of being raped by Shchem. Hence, her son Efraim was a grandson of Shchem, and upon dividing the land of Israel between the tribes, Shchem's descendants reclaimed their heritage – a particularly neat example of mida ki-neged mida (measure for measure).

In fact, however, although Shchem was located within the territory of Efraim, the city itself was one of the thirty-five Levite cities scattered throughout Israel (1 Chronicles 6:51-52); so that Levi, who had physically fought in the city of Shchem, ultimately inherited the city itself with its surrounding fields.

And where does Simeon fit in with this? – After all, he, too, had fought in Shchem. Immediately after massacring all the males in Shchem, Jacob questioned the wisdom of their action: "You have sullied my reputation, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Cana'anite and the Perizzite, while I am few in number; should they gather together and smite me, I and my household will be exterminated" (Genesis 34:30). It is clear why Jacob feared the Canaanites: they were numerous and they occupied the area around Shchem. But the Perizzites? They lived in the south of the country, in the region between Jerusalem and Hebron. And those were precisely the areas, within the territory of Judah, through which the tribe of Simeon was scattered. Jacob feared the reaction of the Perizzites to Simeon's action – and Simeon was given the Perizzite areas.

The Emorites also occupied the general vicinity of the mountain range running north-south through Shchem, hence Jacob's reference to having taken Shchem "from the hand from the Emorites with my sword and with my bow". It is noteworthy that the Targum Yonatan, which typically gives midrashic rendering into Aramaic, translates this particular phrase literally; the Targum Onekelos, which is nearly always a direct, literal translation into Aramaic, paraphrases "…which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my prayers and with my supplications". (Onekelos homiletically reads the Hebrew "be-kashti" ["with my bow"] as "bakashati" ["my supplications"]). This phrase has been eternalized and popularized in Kaddish: "Titkabel tz'lot'hon u-va'ut-hon…" ("May the prayers and supplications be accepted…").

The commentators discuss which is the literal meaning – did Jacob conquer Shchem with sword and bow, or with prayers and supplications? The Targum Yerushalmi gives a beautiful, if alternative outlook: "And I hereby give you an extra portion more than your brothers – Adam's garment, which Abraham, my father's father took from the hand of the wicked Nimrod and gave to my brother Isaac, and my father Isaac gave to Esau; and I took it from the hand of Esau my brother, not with my sword and not with my bow, but by my merit and my good deeds".

The moral lesson is clear: On the physical level, Israel indeed took Shchem with the sword and bow. But Israel wins wars – whether against Esau, or whether against any nation who occupies this Land and claims it for themselves – not in the merit of superior physical strength, but in the merit of prayer and mitzvot. As in Shchem, the first battle the children of Israel ever fought – so every true Jewish army fights with "the praises of G-d in their throats and a two-edged sword in their hand" (Psalms 149:6).


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