"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. He asks Yosef 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. Yosef complies. Yaakov then bows. There are various explanations of Yaakov's bowing. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra provides the basic interpretations. One opinion is that Yaakov bowed to Hashem. The other opinion is that Yaakov bowed to his son, Yosef. Seforno 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 the Almighty. Yaakov realized that it would require Yosef's influence for his removal from Egypt for burial. He knew that Yosef had achieved authority through the providence of Hashem. Yaakov thanked Hashem for His guidance over Yosef's life. This was appropriate. Yaakov was now benefiting from this providence.
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. Yosef was obligated to comply with his father wishes. Why would Yaakov thank Yosef for doing his duty? Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra answers this question through asserting 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.
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. We are obligated to appreciate any kindness done for us. Our right to expect this kindness is irrelevant. Therefore, Yaakov was ethically bound to demonstrate his appreciation to Yosef. True, Yosef was only agreeing to fulfill a reasonable obligation. Nonetheless, the kindness required acknowledgement.
"Unstable as water, you will not longer be first. This is because you moved your father's beds, committing a profane act. He moved my bed." (Beresheit 49:4)
Yaakov addresses his sons before his death. He rebukes or blesses his various children. He begins by addressing his oldest son, Reuven. He tells Reuven that although he is the first-born, he will not be granted the privileges identified with this birthright. He tells Reuven that this is a consequence of his previous sin. The pasuk does not clearly indicate the sin committed by Reuven. Yaakov limits his rebuke to an allusion. He criticizes Reuven for moving his father's bed. The Chumash discusses the incident very briefly in Parshat VaYishlach. The Torah explains that Reuven slept with Bilhah, Yaakov's concubine. The Talmud explains that the statement should not be understood literally. It is an allusion to a complicated incident. After the death of Rachel, Yaakov moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah. Bilhah had been Rachel's maidservant. She had been given to Yaakov as a wife. Reuven felt that this preference for Bilhah degraded his mother, Leya. He decided to unilaterally correct the situation. He moved Yaakov's bed into Leya's tent. Other commentators offer alternative explanations of Reuven's motivations. Some provide completely different explanations of the incident. Rashi, based upon the Sifri, maintains that Yaakov did not rebuke Reuven prior to this point. He waited until the end of his life. Why did Yaakov postpone his comments until this time? Rashi explains that Yaakov was concerned with Reuven's reaction to the rebuke. He feared that this criticism might drive Reuven away. Reuven might turn to Esav. Rashi further explains that Moshe also waited until the end of his life to thoroughly rebuke Bnai Yisrael. He was motivated by these same considerations. He did not wish to risk alienating Bnai Yisrael. These comments are very difficult to understand. In order to appreciate the problem they present, a brief introduction is needed.
Maimonides explains in his Mishne Torah that we are each responsible for our fellow Jew's conduct. This means that should we observe a person acting improperly, we are obligated to address the person. We are to point out the sinfulness of the behavior and attempt to redirect the errant individual. We cannot discharge this obligation with a single comment. We are required to be persistent. We must repeat the rebuke until we are heard. It is difficult to reconcile Yaakov's behavior with this principle. It seems from Maimonides that the obligation to provide criticism is urgent. Postponement is not appropriate. How could Yaakov and Moshe ignore this pressing obligation until the moments before their deaths? The answer to this question lies in recognizing that there are two types of rebuke. The first is related to a specific action. In this form of rebuke, we point out a particular wrongdoing. For example, we tell our friend that he or she has been unkind to another. Perhaps, we criticize our friend for eating something that was not kosher. In these cases our criticism is limited to the specific act. We are not evaluating the overall values or conduct of the individual. The second form of rebuke is far more penetrating. In this second form, we move beyond the specific behavior. We criticize a character trait or value of the individual. We are criticizing the person not the specific behavior. An effective teacher or parent recognizes the difference between these two forms of criticism. It is relatively easy and safe to criticize an action. A teacher can tell a student that an assignment is late or requires improvement. A parent can safely explain to a child that his or her bed is not made. The second form of rebuke is far more dangerous and tricky. Once the teacher or parent addresses the substance of the person there is a risk of alienation. This occurs when a teacher tells a student that he or she is lazy. A parent telling a child that he or she is a slob is engaging in a more risky form of criticism. In order to be effective, the criticism must be delivered with sensitivity and care. Delivered carelessly the rebuke may result in a negative outcome.
We can now reconcile Yaakov and Moshe's behavior with the teaching of Maimonides. Maimonides is discussing rebuke directed to a specific sinful behavior. This criticism can and should be provided immediately. This is because such criticism is relatively safe. Yaakov and Moshe were providing more extensive criticism. Moshe did not limit his comments to specific sins committed by the nation. He dissected the behavior of the people. He analyzed their motivations, morals and values. Yaakov also was engaging in this type of critique. He criticized a character trait of Reuven. He told Reuven he was impulsive. He acted without due consideration and judgement. This was the intent of his comparison of Reuven to water. This type of rebuke should not be delivered offhandedly.
Both Moshe and Yaakov waited until their death to utter these more serious criticisms. They knew that such personal rebukes could estrange the recipients. However, they understood that their impending deaths provided an opportunity to provide valuable insight. They used their last moments to counsel and help others in matters that were previously difficult to fully discuss.
"And Yosef had Bnai Yisrael swear saying, "G-d will remember you and you will take up my bones from here". (Beresheit 50:25)
Yosef approaches his brothers. He tells them that he will die in Egypt. He does not want to be buried in Egypt. They will be redeemed by Hashem and brought to the land of Israel. At the time of their redemption, they should remove his body from Egypt and bury him in the land of Israel. The brothers agree to Yosef's request. They swear that they will fulfill his wishes.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Z"L asks an interesting question. Why did Yosef turn to his brothers for assistance? Yosef had his own children. He knew that his own descendants would be rescued from Egypt. Why did Yosef not ask his own children to accept responsibility for fulfilling his wishes? In order to understand Rav Soloveitchik's answer to this question, we must review an earlier episode in the parasha. Immediately prior to this incident, the Chumash discusses Yaakov's death and the brothers' reaction. The Torah tells us that the brothers were troubled by their relationship with Yosef. They were afraid that Yosef still harbored ill feelings towards them. They suspected that Yosef had deferred acting on these feeling during Yaakov's lifetime because of his love for his father. Now that Yaakov had died, perhaps Yosef would seek to punish them. Yosef assured his brothers that did not resent them and would continue to support care for them. Yosef realized that his brothers did not completely accept him. Their suspicion was based on distrust. He was troubled by this relationship. He knew that Bnai Yisrael must be a single unified nation. His descendants must live in peace with the children of his brothers. How could he bring about a more total reconciliation? Rav Soloveitchik explains that Yosef identified the underlying cause of the friction between himself and his brothers. The tension was caused by his superior status. The brothers were dependent upon him. They had been forced to bow to Yosef. They had reluctantly accepted Yosef as their leader. This stratification was a source of resentment and distrust. Based on this evaluation, Yosef devised a plan to place his brothers at ease. The essence of Yosef's plan was to demonstrate that they were all mutually dependant upon one another. The brothers needed him. But he also needed the brothers. In order to create this mutual dependence he asked his brothers to accept responsibility for his interment in the land of Israel. He placed his fate in their hands. In this manner he demonstrated his trust in his brothers and created mutual dependency.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.
Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 47:31.
Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 254.
Sefer Beresheit 35:22.
Mesechet Shabbat 55:b.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:3.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot De'ot 6:7.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Yemai Zicaron (Jerusalem, 1986), p 19.