Vayechi: A Touching Oath

The book of Genesis (Bereishit in Hebrew) ends with Jacob’s whole extended family, well over 70 people, settled down comfortably in Egypt.  The last Torah portion in the book, Vayechi (And he lived) begins this way:

And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years; and the years of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.  The days for  Israel to die approached, and he called for his son, for Joseph …  (Genesis/Bereishit 47:28-29)

Wait a minute.  Why did the Torah switch the name of the 147-year-old man from “Jacob” to “Israel”?

A mysterious being gave Jacob the name “Israel” five Torah portions before, at the end of their wrestling match at the Yabbok River.  After that point, the Torah calls him Jacob the most often, but sometimes uses his new name.  In the passage above, I think the Torah switches to the name “Israel” because Jacob is about to rise above his usual self-centered attitude and make a request for the sake of his people, the “children of Israel”.

and he called for his son, for Joseph, and he said to him:  If, please, I have found grace in your eyes, then place, please, your hand under my yareikh; and if you would do lasting kindness, you will not, please, bury me in Egypt.  When I lie down with my fathers, and you carry me up from Egypt, my burial place will be in their burial place.  And he (Joseph) said:  I will do as you have spoken.  (Genesis 47:29-30)

yareikh = loin; i.e. lower back, hip, upper thigh, or genitals (depending on the context)

Israel is asking to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and—we learn later in this Torah portion—his own first wife, Leah.  As the self-centered Jacob, he might want to be buried in Bethlehem beside Rachel, the wife he loved and mourned for the rest of his life.  But as Israel, he knows it will have more impact on his descendants if he is buried at Machpelah in Canaan.  Then the children of Israel, who are settling down in Egypt and acquiring land, will remember that in the long run, they must return to Canaan.

Israel begins his speech to Joseph with extreme formality and politeness, addressing him in his role as the viceroy of Egypt, rather than in his identity as Jacob’s favorite son.  He might trust Joseph to carry out his wishes if his son were a private individual.  But, commentators agree, he knows the pharaoh does not want his invaluable viceroy to leave Egypt for even a short visit to his homeland.  What if Joseph does not return?  So Israel decides to give Joseph an extra reason to go, one that will impress Pharaoh:  Joseph must swear the most solemn oath possible.

This is the kind of oath that Abraham made his steward swear when he ordered his steward to get Isaac a bride from Aram instead of Canaan.  Abraham was afraid he would not live long enough to enforce his decision about his daughter-in-law; Jacob/Israel knows he will be powerless over his own burial.  In both cases, the most serious oath is called for.

Abraham’s steward complied at once:

And the servant placed his hand under the yareikh of Abraham, his master, and he swore to him on this matter.  (Genesis 24:9)

As above, the word yareikh, like the word “loin”, could mean any of several different spots on the body.  We can only guess where Abraham’s steward placed his hand.

The next time the word yareikh appears in the Torah is when Jacob wrestles with an unnamed being (perhaps a messenger of God) at the Yabbok, the night before he faces his estranged brother Esau.  At dawn, Jacob’s opponent touches the hollow of his yareikh, and jerks or dislocates it.  (Genesis 32:26)  Nevertheless, Jacob refuses to let go until the being blesses him.  The being gives him the following blessing:

No longer will it be said your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you strove with elohim and with anashim, and you prevailed.  (Genesis 32:29)

elohim = gods, divine powers, God

anashim = men

The implication is that Jacob’s wrestling opponent was divine.  Many commentators conclude that it was an angel, which the Torah calls a “messenger of God”.  I am in the modern camp that speculates one part of Jacob’s personality wrestled with another part, now that he could no longer postpone dealing with his psychological conflicts regarding his twin brother Esau, whom he cheated 20 years before and is about to face again in the morning.  Either way,  a divine perspective wrestled or strove with a small human perspective.  The divine perspective touched a physical spot on Jacob’s body, and Jacob emerged from the experience with both a new name and a limp.

And the sun rose for him as he passed Penueil, and he, he was limping on his yareikh.  (Genesis 32:32)

At the end of his life, Jacob, speaking as Israel, begs Joseph to swear an oath with his hand placed under his father’s yareikh.  But Joseph promises to bury him according to his request without placing his hand under his father’s whatever-it-is.  He merely says, I will do as you have spoken.

Is the hand placement beneath his dignity, as the viceroy of Egypt?  I don’t think so.  I think Joseph remembers Jacob’s famous limp.  He does not want to touch the spot that the unnamed being touched.  There is something holy, even divine, about the hollow of Jacob’s yareikh.

While many commentators assume that Joseph swears without putting his hand in the required place, I think Jacob does not accept Joseph’s unsupported promise as a bona fide oath.

He said:  Swear to me.  And he swore to him.  Then Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.  (Genesis 47:31)

Joseph obviously says and does something else after his initial promise, something Jacob accepts as a duly sworn oath, one that even the Pharaoh could not quibble about.

Why is the physical action of the oath so important to Jacob-Israel?  After all, when Jacob dies, Joseph can still tell Pharaoh he swore an oath, whether he used his hand or not.

I wonder if Israel wants Joseph to touch the same place the divine being touched.  The first two times Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, Joseph disguised himself, lied to them, and  manipulated them—just as Jacob did to his brother and father.  Jacob might recognize himself, before the wrestling match, in his favorite son.  How can he get Joseph to confront his own divided personality, and wrestle with the divine side?  Maybe if Joseph touches the spot that the divine being touched, the re-enactment will shock him into awareness.

Jacob-Israel would not think in those terms,  since he is not a psychotherapist.  But humans have always engaged in symbolic acts, instinctively using them to making connections between the seen and the unseen.

Then Israel prostrated himself on the head of the bed.   He is not merely stretching out; the Hebrew word vayishtachavu means bowing to the ground before a king or god.  When Jacob limped toward Esau after the wrestling match, he prostrated himself toward his brother seven times.  Now Jacob prostrates himself as best he can, at age 147, to complete the ritual that echoes his experience at the Yabbok.

The story echoes inside me, even though none of the particulars of my life remotely approach  the Torah’s account of Jacob’s life.  I think what moves me is the understanding that although we use our clever brains to try to arrange what we believe we want, something deeper and more mysterious is going on underneath all that busy thinking.  Something that cannot be pinned down with words, but only alluded to, perhaps by a word like “elohim” or “divine”.  Jacob learns this.  He makes sure his son Joseph knows it.  And when we read their ancient story in the Torah, we can realize it, too.

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