Vayechi: Be Strong and Strengthen Others

Joseph's Promise

Torah portion Vayechi completes the Book of Genesis. When we finish one of the five Books of Moses in the yearly cycle of Torah reading in synagogue, the congregation rises and calls out together “Chazak, chazak, venitchazek!” (“Be strong, be strong, and strengthen others!”)

Unlike the later four Books of Moses, Genesis ends on an apparent down note: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (Gen. 50:26) It seems incongruous for worshippers to make a passionate avowal of strength right after reading that Joseph’s bones are sitting unburied in a box in Egypt. Why not end the Book of Genesis with the more uplifting story of Jacob’s passing, his burial in Israel, and the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers?

Rabbi Mordecai Kamenetzky provides a compelling explanation for why Genesis ends with Joseph in a state of limbo. Recall, Joseph himself tells his family not to bury him: “So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying ‘When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’” (Gen. 50:25) Possessing wisdom as well as prophecy, Joseph knows that the Egyptians will eventually forget the Hebrew viceroy who saved their empire from famine. They will no longer see the Jews as saviors but rather as visitors, then as strangers, later as intruders, and finally as slaves. Joseph’s descendants are destined to endure great suffering before their long exile finally ends – and he wants to be part of the jubilant caravan leaving Egypt.

Joseph’s request not to be buried until his people leave Egypt is a promise to future Jews that they will one day be free. Rabbi Kamenetzky says, “We must not see a box of bones – see the hope that lies therein.” Genesis ends on an unfinished note because the journey of the Jewish people is unfinished. It is appropriate for the congregation to shout “Be strong!” at this point in the story because Joseph’s box of bones is not a depressing detail but rather a promise of future salvation meant to strengthen his descendants.

Dedicated by Debra Goodman in honor of Rivka Shore

Image: Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem

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