Vayechi: The Family Tree

“All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he blessed them, each according to his blessing, he blessed him.” (Bereishit 49:28).

Isaac is beloved and tended,
Ishmael is exiled to the arid desert.

Jacob is the offshoot of the family tree,
Esau is sidelined: his bough is pruned.

Joseph, unseasoned sapling, is the favoured son,
his brothers are blighted by murderous envy.

Jacob calls his scions for the farewell blessing:
accepting all with their beauty and blemishes
no branch is rejected among the children of Israel.

Probably the most prominent recurring theme in the book of Bereishit is that of older sons being usurped by their favoured younger brothers. Each generation seems to repeat the story: parental partiality and fraternal hatred. The resolution of each conflict portrayed seems to result in the loss of a family member. Yet in this week’s portion, for the first time, a family moves through the fraternal hatred and near-fratricide, to reconciliation. The dysfunctional cycle is interrupted. Here we see that the sibling rivalry is overcome by repentance and reconciliation. This family, then, the only one in Bereishit to remain intact, becomes a nation. In next week’s parasha, we will hear Jacob’s descendants being called “Am benei Yisrael – the nation of the children of Israel.” (Shemot 1:9).

When Joseph’s brothers saw how favoured Joseph was, and indeed his two sons also merited a blessing from their grandfather Jacob, they could not but have thought that they too were headed for rejection. However, Jacob gathers all of his sons together and addresses each individually (although his words to certain sons do not seem like blessings, yet none was omitted and the Torah is clear in the verse above, that each was blessed). The family could be held together to transmit the Divine message.

After Jacob died, the brothers sent a message to Joseph, telling him something that it seems they fabricated:“Before his death, your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, “I urge you to forgive the evil-doing and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. So please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph cried as they spoke to him.” (Bereishit 50:16-17)
In a blog post on Vayechi in 2012,, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser brings an interpretation of these verses by Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa* who says that Joseph’s brothers knew about the familial pattern: how in previous generations there had always been one son who was the chosen successor while the other brothers were rejected. The brothers thought they would share Ishmael and Esau’s fate. So when they came to Joseph asking twice for forgiveness, the first time they were acknowledging their crime as Joseph’s brothers. But the second time, says R’ Simcha Bunim, they were entreating him as “servants of the God of your father,” and what they were really asking was not to be cast out of the story of the Jewish people.
This, he teaches, is why Joseph weeps at his brothers’ words: he understands that they want to be included as heirs in the covenant with God. He adds that we need to seek out the holiness in each person and to resist judging. So Joseph is crying for joy as he recognizes that spark even in these men who sold him into slavery.
Rabbi Goldwasser concludes, “The Jewish people needs to embrace this truth. We often appear to be a people divided into conflicting segments, more and more removed from each other by our harsh judgment, distrust and resentments. Imagine the tears of joy that would flow if we could see the holy spark within each other.”

*Rabbi Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa (Przysucha, in Poland) (1765–1827). He was the son of the Magid of Voydislav and became one of the main leaders of chasidic Jewry in Poland. After studying Torah at yeshivot in Mattersdorf and Nikolsburg, he was introduced to the world of chasidism by his father-in-law. He became a follower of several chasidic rebbes, the last of whom (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz – the Yid Hakadosh) he succeeded.
Not wanting to take up a rabbinical position, he supported himself by practising pharmacy.
Among R’ Simcha Bunim’s disciples were Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotsker Rebbe), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger (the Chidushei HaRim), Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz (the Mei HaShiloach), Rabbi Yaakov Arye of Radzymin and Rav Chanoch Heynekh of Alexander.
R’ Simcha Bunim wrote no works of his own, but many of his teachings were transmitted orally and some of these were compiled in a work entitled Kol Simcha.


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