A Nation Apart — A Vayechi Essay

By Israel Krasnianski
— Dedicated in loving memory of my dear grandfather,
Meshulim Yochanon Krasnianski,
in honor of the anniversary of his passing, this past Wednesday, 13 Tevet —

“…If statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way. properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?“

– Mark Twain [*]

Request of negativity

In this week’s Torah portion we read about Jacob’s final request to his son Joseph [1], that after his passing they should bury him in the Land of Israel, not in Egypt. Let us examine Jacob’s words to Joseph [2]:

”Please — if i have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh [2] and do kindness to me and truth with me — Please do not bury me in Egypt. For i will lie down with my fathers and you shall transport me out of Egypt and bury me in thier tomb [3].“

One might take notice that Jacob uses the negative sense throughout his request. Instead of saying ”Please bury me in the land of Israel,“ Jacob chooses to phrase his words negatively and say: ”Please do not bury me in Egypt.“ Once again, instead of saying: ”you shall transport me to the land of Israel,“ Jacob chooses to phrase his words negatively by saying: ”…And you shall transport me out of Egypt.“

It is well known that that the Torah and the Jewish holy sages, where possible, always speak in the positive sense. Although Jacob’s request would’ve been obviously understood just the same — had he phrased it positively — yet he chose twice to specifically word it in the negative sense. Jacob should have expressed his desire and stressed the importance of being buried in Eretz Israel with his fathers. Instead, from his words, he makes it seem as if he is emphasizing simply that he does not want to be buried in Egypt and as a ‘by the way’ that he wants to be buried in Israel once he is taken out of Egypt. Why all this negativity from a holy and righteous patriarch?

Jacob was not a dying old man who had become careless and negative about his life and choice of words.
I found a moving explanation for all this negativity in the writings of Rabbi Meir Simcha from Dvinsk (Lithuania – 19-20th century).

A Torah portion apart

One of the unique things about this week’s Torah portion — called ”Vayechi,“ and is the last in the book of Genesis — is that it is known as a ‘closed’ or ‘clogged’ portion. Let me explain:

From the entire Torah scroll, this week’s portion — Vayechi — is unique in that there is no usual extra space between it and the preceding portion which indidcate an end of one portion and the beginning of another. As a matter of fact, this is in stark contrast to the laws of Troah writing which requires that a new portion begin on a new line or be separated from the previous one by at least a nine-letter blank space [5], the only exception to this rule being our Torah portion, Vayechi. Because of this uniqueness, Rashi, in his commentary to the Torah, therefore describes Vayechi as a ”closed“ or ”clogged“ portion. The commentaries understand that this must come to show that there must be a specific and direct connection between the end of the preceding portion to the beginning words of the next one [6].

The previous torah portion, Vayigash, concludes with the following words: ”Thus [the fledgling nation of] Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the region of Goshen [7]; they acquired property there, and were fertile, with their population increasing very rapidly [8].“

The next portion, Vayechi — the ”closed“ one — tells us of the negatively phrased request that Jacob made to Joseph. It is a direct and continuous narration from the ending of Vayigash, which tell us about the Jewish people’s success and growth in Egypt.

What is the connection? How are these two portions related to each other and what message is Jacob conveying to us with his negativity?

In the later Prophets, it is recorded how G-d instructed Ezekiel to tell the protesting elders [9] about the people’s shortcomings in Egypt:

”Inform them of the abominations of their fathers! Say to them: ‘Thus said the Lord: On the day i chose Israel, I raised my hand [in oath] for the seed of the House of Jacob and made Myself known to them in the land of Egypt… On that day I raised My hand for them, [swearing] to take them out from the land of Egypt to the Land that I had sought out for them — [a land that] flows with milk and honey, a splendor for all the lands. And I said to them, ‘Every man, cast away the detestable [idols] of his eyes; do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt…’ But they rebelled against Me and did not want to listen to Me; no man of them cast away the detestable [idols] of their eyes, and they did not forsake the idols of Egypt. But i acted for the sake of My name, that it not be desecrated in the eyes of the nations in whose midst they were, before whose eyes I made Myself known to them, [promising] to take them out of the land of Egypt [10].“

The children of Jacob settled in Goshen and were very successful and fruitful, starting the birth of a great nation. However, this great nation also became very attached and tied down to the land which they settled in — Egypt. They had begun to take on the look of a native Egyptian and the customs of the Egyptian people. They took pride in being part of the world’s mightiest and richest empire of the time. The Jewish people slowly began to forget that Jacob had only intended to journey down to Egypt to meet his son, Joseph, and be forced to settle there only temporarily on a guest visa and to always remain a stranger in a foreign land, never to settle permanently. The Jews got their reminder when a new Pharaoh came to power after the old generation Egypt had all perished, the ones who remembered Jacob and Joseph their ruler. The new king felt threatened by the quickly multiplying large Israelite population and decided to ensure that they never reach the capability to one day take over his land, so he enforced a new order making all the Jewish people slaves forced to do excruciating labors designed to break their bodies, confidence and power [11].

A plan for survival

This is the link, the direct and continuing flow of the two portions, Vayechi and Vayigash. Jacob understood the great danger of his children settling in a foreign land, even with the status of being strangers on a temporary guest visa. In the final moments of Jacob’s physical life on this world, he witnessed his children settling into the choicest district in Egypt and he became worried that they will forget that they are the Chosen Nation destined to inherit their own land — a marvelous land promised to their forefathers by G-d Himself.

By Jacob requesting of his children ”not to be buried in Egypt“ — not just simply to be buried in Eretz Israel, the land of his fathers — and again by requesting, ”to be transported out of Egypt“ — not just brought to Eretz Israel — he was conveying a powerful message to them and all of their descendants. Jacob intentionally used negative wording to hint out to us and to remind us that we should never settle in and act as if we are ordinary citizens of the land in which we are exiled. In our minds we must internalize the feeling and understanding that it is wrong to want to die in Egypt, wrong to want to be buried in Egypt and how much more so to ever comfortably live there in a permanent manner or within the context of a settled frame of mind.

Jacob also feared that if he be buried in Egypt, the Jewish people would not want to leave the land because their forefather is buried there. It is for this reason as well that he used the negative phrasing to his son Joseph ”do not bury me in Egypt,“ in order to be crystal clear about being transported out of Egypt so that such a claim could not be made later. It was imperative to him that they understand that he wants to be taken out of Egypt even more than he cared about being buried in Eretz Israel, for the sake of his descendants future.

Home sweet home

When Jacob came down to Egypt he was accompanied by his family, a group of seventy persons. Jacob foresaw what was to become of his future descendants and understood that a group of seventy persons would easily become effected by, lost and assimilated within the vast Egyptian empire. Jacob therefore came up with the idea that his children be recognizably different from the other nations, by the clothes they wear, the names they give thier children and the language they speak. This kept the Jewish people from assimilating and becoming completely lost within the Egyptian culture and society. If Jacob, the father of all Jewish tribes, would have been buried in Egypt, then the Jewish people would easily have given up on the land of their forefathers, the Land of Israel. They could easily come to think that Egypt was the land of their birth and the Chosen People would be merely a small group, a tribal fraction and a part of the Egyptian people, just another arab tribe living in the Middle Eastern lands.

Jacob was therefore so adamant about not being buried in Egypt and to be transported out of Egypt. He wanted us to remember that the land of our forefathers, of our heritage and inheritance, is the Holy land of Israel that G-d gave to us exclusively. This request would ensure that no matter where the Jewish people are exiled to at any time, they would always feel that special connection and relationship to their homeland and to their G-d. It would deliver the message that we are temporarily strangers in a foreign land, destined to be redeemed speedily.

To dedicate an upcoming essay please send an email to srulikraz@msn.com and put ‘attn: dedications’ in the subject line.
[*] ”Concerning The Jews,“ Harper’s Magazine, 1899, see The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, Doubleday [1963] pg. 249.

[1] Feeling that his death was drawing nearer, Jacob sent for Joseph — the only one of his sons who held power — and asked him to swear that he would bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, in the city of Hebron.
[2] See commentaries to Genesis 24:2. This was the means of taking an oath. According to Biblical idiom, children issue from the ”thigh“ of the father (Gen. 46:26, Exodus 1:5, Judges 8:30), and hence, it is a euphemism for the procreatice organ. According to Talmudic tradition, the one making the oath was to place his hand near the holy sign of the covenant, just as in later times an oath would be made on a Torah scroll (Shevouth 38b). According to another opinion, it was a sign of obedience (Ibn Ezra).
[3] Genesis, 47:28-29.
[4] In his monumental commentary on the Torah – �Meshech Chochmah�.
[5] Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Laws of Torah Writing.
[6] Rashi — the classic and most basic commentary on the Torah — offers the following explanation for the ”closed“ portions: At the time of Jacob’s deaths, his children’s hearts were ”closed“ in expectation of the suffering and despair of the impending bondage that they were going to experience in Egypt after thier father’s passing. Jacob wanted to reveal to his children the ”End,“ i.e. the Messianic age when Israel’s exiles would finally end, but he was prevented fom doing so because his prohetic vision was closed, i.e., it was concealed from him.
[7] The disctrict of Goshen in Egypt (also once known as the Rameses region) is identified by some sources with Pelusium, a city at the extreme northeast of the Nile delta. Other sources identify Rameses with Tanis, Qantir or San El-chagar. Etymologically, Rameses comes from the Egyptian ”Ra-meses,“ which means ”born in Ra.” Meses (born of) is also the root of the name Moses. The name was also later adopted by a number of Pharaohs.
[8] Genesis, 47:27.
[9] The elders of this generation were in shock that G-d had apparently spurned the Israel, and they asked wether they still owed Him allegiance. If they were no longer His Chosen People, why couldn’t they be like all other nations? Ezekiel responded that they were wrong. Even thier exile and oppression were functions of their chosenness; Israel was being punished because it had fallen short of it’s mission. But as Ezekiel says later on (verses 32-33), Israel is not free to join other nations.
[10] Ezekiel, 20:4-10.
[11] Exodus, 1:6-15.
[12] Genesis, 46:27; Exodus, 1:5.


  • 1. S. Shomer wrote:

    Exellent written article.Thank you for inspirational words and don’t forget to live this year to its fullest!!

  • 2. Rochel wrote:

    wow, What a catchy beggining and what beautiful explanations. In our modern times it is easy to just live in our country, we are born ,go to school, get married and have children of our own in America or Canada, and any where else in the world! We often forget that we do not belong here, we are only on a temporary stop over on a one way flight home- Israel, with Moshiach.
    Thank you for reminding us
    Gutte Voch

  • 3. chanie j wrote:

    webby, who is israel krasnianski? from hawaii? and can we get more from IK on a weekly basis not just once a month?


Leave Comment

Comment moderation is in use. Please do not submit your comment twice -- it will appear shortly.