Parshat Vayechi Yaakov Bows to Yosef

Yaakov Bows to Yosef

And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. And Yisrael bowed towards the head of the bed. (Beresheit 47:31)

Yaakov realizes that he is approaching death. He summons his son, Yosef, and asks him to assure him that he will return him to the Land of Israel for burial. Yosef agrees. Yaakov asks Yosef to vow that he will fulfill this request and Yosef complies. Yaakov then bows. There are various explanations of Yaakov’s bowing. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra outlines the basic interpretations. One possible interpretation is that Yaakov bowed to Hashem. The other possible interpretation is that Yaakov bowed to his son, Yosef.[1]

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno adopts the explanation that Yaakov bowed to Hashem. He elaborates on the reason for Yaakov’s action. The bow was an act of giving thanks to Hashem. Yaakov realized Yosef’s influence would be required for the removal of his body from Egypt for burial in the Land of Israel. Yosef had achieved authority and influence to fulfill his father’s wish through Hashem’s providence. Through bowing to Hashem, Yaakov expressed his appreciation for His guidance over Yosef’s life. This was appropriate. Yaakov was now benefiting from this providence.[2]

The second interpretation of Yaakov’s bow is more difficult to understand. Why would Yaakov bow to his son Yosef? He was asking Yosef to perform a kindness. However, this was an appropriate request for a father to make of his son. In fact, respect for his father obligated Yosef to comply with his father’s wishes. Why would Yaakov thank Yosef for performing his duty as his son?

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra answers this question through reinterpreting the intention of Yaakov’s bow. He explains that Yaakov was not thanking his son. Instead, he was demonstrating respect. Yosef was the ruler of Egypt. Yaakov felt obligated to demonstrate his respect for Yosef’s position of authority.[3]

Gershonides offers another explanation for Yaakov bowing to Yosef. He maintains that Yaakov was thanking Yosef. Why would Yaakov thank Yosef for performing his duty towards his father? Gershonides posits that there is a basic ethical lesson taught through Yaakov’s action. Generally, we feel that we need not show appreciation to those who assist or benefit us in the course of executing their own responsibilities. We reason that the person has not acted on our behalves. He or she is simply fulfilling a duty. Gershonides explains that Yaakov’s behavior demonstrates that our reasoning is incorrect. We are obligated to appreciate any kindness done for us. Even if the person performing the kindness is compelled to act on our behalf, we are not relieved of the obligation to express our appreciation. Therefore, Yaakov was ethically bound to demonstrate his appreciation to Yosef. True, Yosef was only agreeing to fulfill an obligation of a son to his father, nonetheless, the kindness required acknowledgement.[4]

The lesson that Gershonides identifies as expressed by Yaakov’s behavior is fundamental to our relationship with Hashem. The kindness that Hashem performs on our behalves is an expression of His nature. We cannot ascribe to Him any of the human motives that typically earn our appreciation and thanks. If we do not accept Yaakov’s lesson that every act of kindness – regardless of motivation – requires our acknowledgement, then we will also dismiss our obligation to acknowledge Hashem’s kindness.

Prayer as Self-Judgment

And Yisrael said to Yosef: I did not judge it possible to see your face. And behold the Lord has shown me your children also. (Beresheit 48:11)

Yosef brings his children to his father, Yaakov. He hopes that Yaakov will bless them. Yaakov tells Yosef that he had given up hope of seeing him again, but to his surprise, they have been reunited and he has also had the opportunity to know Yosef’s children. Yaakov expressed himself with an unusual term. He said, “To see your face I did not pelalti.” The above translation is based upon the commentary of Rashbam.[5] This translation indicates that Yaakov had not been completely certain that Yosef had been killed, but he had judged that it was unlikely that he would ever see Yosef.

The Hebrew term for the process of prayer is hitpalel. Rav Aryeh Lev Gorden Zt”l in his introduction to the Sidur – the prayer book – explains that this term has two interesting characteristics. First, the conjugation has a special meaning. It denotes an action performed upon oneself. In other words, the act of praying involves performing an act upon oneself. Second, the term hitpalel is a form of the same term used by Yaakov – pelalti. This means that in some way, prayer is similar to the process of judging.

Considering these two characteristics of the term hitpalel, Rav Gorden offers a novel insight into the nature of prayer. In order to understand his interpretation of prayer, we must first consider the process of judging. This will allow us to identify its similarity to prayer.

What is the activity of a judge? A judge is confronted with competing claims. The judge must carefully consider all of the facts. He sorts through the information and seeks the truth. This was Yaakov’s intent in our pasuk. He had sorted though all of the information available regarding Yosef’s fate. As a result of this analysis, he concluded that it was unlikely that Yosef was alive. In short, the process of judging requires the application of the judge’s intellect to a confused body of information. The judge’s objective is to introduce order to the collection of information and thereby uncover the truth.

Rav Gorden explains that some mistakenly assume that prayer is a spontaneous outpouring. They regard it as an expression of feelings and not as an intellectual activity. Rav Gorden argues that this is a misunderstanding of prayer. He explains that prayer is not spontaneous. It involves an intensive thought process. He observes that normally various concerns compete for our attention. Family, work, personal finances, community issues, and other problems demand our attention. Like the process of judging, prayer requires sorting and ordering of information or all of the issues and concerns that compete for our attention. In prayer, we recognize the many blessings we have received. We petition Hashem for assistance in dealing with our greatest needs. This requires that we sort through our various concerns and prioritize, and that through this process, we reaffirm the importance of our relationship with our Creator.

Consider the central prayer of the prayer service – the Amidah. It begins with praise of Hashem. It then continues with a set of petitions. These are ordered in a fashion that reflects a prioritization of our needs. We end the prayer by thanking Hashem for His many gifts. The Amidah is an excellent example of the process of sorting and organizing our various concerns.

The term, hitpalel, perfectly describes the process of prayer. Prayer is a process of applying the act of judging. This process is applied to our own mental world. In summary, it is a process of judgment performed upon ourselves – our needs and priorities.[6]

The Sin of the Hashmonaim

The scepter will not be removed from Yehudah or the scribe’s pen from his descendants until the final tranquility. And to him will nations submit. (Beresheit 49:10)

Yaakov approaches death. He calls his sons to come before him. He shares with them his vision of their future. In this pasuk, Yaakov addresses Yehudah. He tells him that he is destined to be the leader of his people. Shevet Yehudah – the tribe of Yehudah – will provide the rulers of Bnai Yisrael through the “final tranquility”. This phrase is understood to refer to the Messianic age. The Messiah will be a descendent of Yehudah.

Nachmanides explains that the Hashmonaim sinned in assuming kingship. Despite their piety, they were severely punished for this action. The Jerusalem Talmud in Tractate Horiyot contains a dispute regarding their sin. Rebbi Yehudah Anturya explains that the Hashmonaim violated this pasuk, which awards kingship to Shevet Yehudah. Rebbi Chiya Bar Abba disagrees. He maintains that the assumption of kingship violated a different pasuk. This pasuk states: There shall not be to the Kohanim and Leveyim – the entire tribe of Leyve – a territory or portion within the nation of Israel. The sacrifices of G-d and His inheritance they shall eat. (Devarim 18:1) [7]

Nachmanides explains that these authorities have different perspectives on the sin of the Hashmonaim. The difference of opinion is reflected in the pasuk each chooses to support his position. According to Rebbi Yehudah Anturya, Yaakov’s final message to Yehudah included a prohibition against any other tribe assuming the role of kingship. In times of necessity, some other tribe may temporarily adopt a leadership position. However, such leaders are prohibited from claiming the title of king.

Rebbi Chiya Bar Abba did not understand Yaakov’s words to include an absolute prohibition applicable even in desperate times. Instead, Yaakov intended to assure Yehudah that the kingship of Israel would not permanently pass to another tribe. At times, there may be kings from other tribes but ultimately, rulership will always return to Shevet Yehudah. However, the Hashmonaim were Kohanim – Priests. Priesthood is a special position of holiness. The Kohanim and Leveyim must always demonstrate appreciation of their sacred role. They may not seek or accept kingship. They must serve as priests and remain totally devoted to the service of Hashem. According to Rebbi Chiya Bar Abba, this is the prohibition that the Hashmonaim violated.[8]

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.

[3] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.

[4] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag/Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 254.

[5] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 48:11.

[6] Rav Aryeh Lev Gorden, Siddur Avodus HaLev, Introduction, part 1.

[7] Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Horiyot 3:2.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 39:10.