Parshat Vayechi: The Blessings of the Avot

Your father’s blessings exceed the blessings of my parents – extending to the boundaries of the heights of the world. May they be for Yosef’s head, for the brow of the elect of his brothers. (Beresheit 49:26)

Parshat VaYeche completes Sefer Beresheit. Sefer Beresheit deals with creation, early humanity, the forefathers and the children of Yaakov. Very few mitzvot are contained in this first sefer of the Torah. However, the sefer does provide important insights into the laws developed in the other books of the Torah. An interesting insight is contained in Parshat VaYeche.

Parshat VaYeche discusses the end of Yaakov’s life. Before his death, Yaakov blessed each of his children. Many of Yaakov’s blessings are difficult to understand. They are recorded in the Torah in an extremely difficult and unusual Hebrew. Because Yaakov’s words are so difficult to interpret, the Sages offer a variety of interpretations for these blessings. According to Rashi, almost all of the blessings – to some extent – deal with the land of Israel. For example, Yehuda is told that the portion of his descendants will be remarkably fertile. A similar blessing is given to Asher. Zevulun is told that the portion of his descendants will be along the shore. Shimon and Levi learn that their descendants will not receive typical portions among the other shevatim – tribes. Instead, their descendants will be dispersed among the other tribes.

Our passage is the closing of Yaakov’s blessing of Yosef. The passage is very difficult to translate. The translation above draws from different commentaries. The translation of the first portion of the passage is consistent with Rashi’s interpretation. According to this Rashi, Yaakov explained to Yosef that the blessing he had received from Hashem exceeded the blessings that his father Yitzchak or his grandfather Avraham had received. However, the passage does not clearly identify the manner in which Yaakov’s blessing from Hashem exceeded those received by the earlier forefathers.

Rashi assumes that Yaakov’s focus remains upon the land of Israel. Based on this assumption, he finds a hint further in the pasuk as to the superiority of Yaakov’s blessing. Yaakov explains that the blessing he received extends to the boundaries of the heights of the world. Again, we are confronted with an enigmatic phrase that requires further interpretation. Rashi suggests that we compare the blessings that the prior forefathers received regarding the land of Israel with the blessing that Hashem gave to Yaakov.

Hashem spoke to Avraham after his initial separation from his nephew Lote. He told Avraham to cast his eyes in every direction. Hashem promised Avraham that he would receive all of the land that he saw.[1] According to Rashi, this blessing – although very extensive – was limited. It implied that Avraham’s descendants would receive a specific portion of land. Hashem spoke to Yitzchak during a famine. He told Yitzchak that he should not seek refuge in Egypt. Instead, he should remain in the land. Then, Hashem added that Yitzchak’s descendant would receive “these lands.” The reference to “these lands” was not very definitive. Hashem continued and explains that “these lands” refers to the portion promised to Avraham.[2] So, Yitzchak’s blessing was essentially a reiteration of the blessing given to Avraham.

Rashi suggests that we compare these blessing with the promise that Hashem gave to Yaakov. Yaakov left his father to travel to Haran. He had a dream in which he saw a ladder that extended into the heavens. Angels ascended and descended on the ladder. Hashem was above the ladder. Hashem spoke to Yaakov is this vision. He told Yaakov that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Then Hashem told Yaakov that these descendants would spread in all directions.[3] Rashi understands this to mean that Yaakov’s descendants will take possession of the land in every direction. Rashi further points out that no limit or boundary was noted. In other words, Hashem told Yaakov that there is no specific limit to the land that will be the home of his descendants – the land of Israel.

Based on this comparison, Rashi explains our passage. Yaakov told Yosef that the blessing he received regarding the land of Israel was more extensive than the blessings received by Avraham and Yitzchak. Avraham and Yitzchak were promised a land with specific boundaries. But he was promised a land “extending to the boundaries of the heights of the world.” In other words, the land would extend to the furthest reaches occupied by his descendants – even to the ends of the Earth![4]

Clearly, Rashi interpretation of our passage is remarkable in both its originality and brilliance. It is easy to be overwhelmed by Rashi’s creativity. We can neglect to evaluate Rashi’s comments critically. But if we do not give Rashi’s comments careful consideration, we will miss an important element of his message.

If we carefully consider Rashi’s interpretation of the passage, we will notice that his meaning is not completely clear. In fact, his comments invite an obvious question. According to Rashi, Hashem promised Avraham and Yitzchak a land with specific boundaries. Yaakov was promised a portion not restricted by specific boundaries. These blessings do not seem to be consistent. Avraham and Yitzchak were promised a land with specific boundaries. In other words, they were told that they were to receive a specific piece of property. Yaakov was told that the land promised to his descendants had no boundaries. Rather than receiving a promise regarding a specific portion of land, Yaakov was promised a land without boundaries. Was Hashem revising or replacing the promise given to the earlier forefather? Is there some way to reconcile the promise given to Yaakov with the earlier promises given to Avraham and Yitzchak?

A hint to answering this question emerges if we rephrase the contradiction. Avraham and Yitzchak were told that the land of Israel has specific boundaries. Yaakov was told that the land of Israel does not have specific boundaries. The land of Israel extends to whatever land Bnai Yisrael will occupy. Can these two descriptions of the land of Israel be reconciled? They can.

In the closing section of his Mishne Torah, Miamonides explains that any land captured by the Jewish people is regarded as part of the land of Israel. However, the conquest must be authorized by Bait Din – the High Court – and conducted under the auspices of the king of Israel.[5] However, earlier in the Mishne Torah, Maimonides explains this law more thoroughly. He explains that although the boundaries of the land of Israel can be extended through conquest, this can only take place after the land of Canaan is completely captured. In other words, first Bnai Yisrael were required to capture the land promised to Avraham and Yitzchak. After this task was accomplished, any further conquest would be incorporated into the land of Israel. Maimonides explains that because of this law, the lands captured by King David did not have the normative sanctity of the rest of the land of Israel. David captured additional territory before all of the land of Canaan had been captured. Therefore, although the land was captured by Bnai Yisrael lead by a king and the conquest was authorized by Bait Din, these conquests were not deemed to be equal to other portions of the land of Israel. This was because David’s conquests occurred prior to the occupation of the entire land of Cannan.[6]

Let us consider Maimonides’ comments carefully. What can we learn from his position? It would appear that through conquest land can be added to the land of Israel. In other words, first the land of Canaan must be conquered. Once this is accomplished, land can be added to the land of Israel through further conquest. The land of Canaan is the primary territory of the land of Israel. Other conquests can only be incorporated into the land of Israel as an extension of the primary territory.

Based on Maimonides’ comments, we can easily resolve our problem. Hashem promised Avraham and Yitzchak the land of Canaan. This promise was never rescinded or revised. The land of Canaan is the primary territory of the land of Israel. Hashem did not contradict this promise in His blessing to Yaakov. He told Yaakov that the land of Israel would not be limited to the primary territory promised to the earlier forefathers. Instead, the land could be extended beyond this territory through conquest. However, this extension can only take place after the primary territory is controlled by Bnai Yisrael.

In short, although we would not expect Parshat VaYeche to deal with an area of Torah law, our passage does provide important principles regarding the sanctity of the land of Israel – and these principles are incorporated into the Torah’s legal system.

[1] Sefer Beresheit 13:14-15.

[2] Sefer Beresheit 26:3.

[3] Sefer Beresheit 28:14.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 49:26.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:6.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Terumot 1:2-3.