Vayechi: Jacob’s Testament

Vayechi: Jacob’s Testament

Before his death, the Patriarch imparted a last wish to his favorite son, Joseph. This wish Joseph divulged to Pharaoh, after Jacob’s death. Let us compare Jacob’s wording of his own dying wish to Joseph, and the latter’s reporting of it to Pharaoh:

Jacob’s testament to Joseph As reported to Phar Put, I pray thee, thy hand under My father made me swear, saying, deal kindly and truly with me bury me not in Egypt, I pray thee But I will lie with my fathers, Lo I die And thou shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their dying In my grave, which I have dug for me in Place. The land of Canaan, there thou shall bury me (Gen. 47, 29-30)(Gen. 50, 5)

The reason for the variations are abundantly clear. Joseph is cautious in his approach to Pharaoh. As a foreigner in Egypt he did not want to offend the susceptibilities of his host. Jacob, however, as the sturdy opponent of the idolatrous world and Egyptian abominations did not want to be buried in Egypt and said so quite bluntly to Joseph:

Bury me not, I pray thee, in Egypt, Thou shall carry me out of Egypt These statements are not, of course, reproduced by Joseph, in reporting his father’s wish to Pharaoh. Let us now follow Jacob’s request and the form of oath with which he adjures Joseph: If now, I have found grace in thy sight Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh And deal kindly and truly with me.


The above sentiments were naturally not meant for foreign consumption and were addressed privately to Joseph. He therefore omitted them in his interview with Pharaoh. On the other hand, Joseph understood how to influence the king and persuade him to give the necessary permission for burying son an important personage outside the country, and allow the vice regent of the realm accompany the cortege.

Joseph substituted the following wording for what Jacob had actually said:

In my grave which I have dug for me in the land of Canaan, There thou shall bury me.

The reference here is, of course, to the cave of Machpelah which Jacob had not himself dug. Joseph, however, was well acquainted with Egyptian custom. An Egyptian nobleman always prepared in his lifetime his own grave, and only there would he be buried. Pharaoh would therefore appreciate the force of Jacob’s request.

It is quite clear, therefore, that the variations, the omissions and insertions made by Joseph were not accidental. Another point worth examining is the conversation between Jacob and Joseph regarding the taking of an oath. Jacob opened with a request that Joseph take an oath to carry out his last wish:

If now I have found grace in thy sight, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh.

Joseph had not immediately acceded to his father’s request by taking the oath but answered in a general way:

And he said, I will do as thou hast said.

Our commentators express surprise as the fact that Joseph did not immediately take the oath as requested by his father, and only did so after being pressed a second time:

And he said, Swear unto me. And he swore unto him.

His behavior contrasted with that of Abraham’s servant, who was similarly asked by his master to swear, which he readily did:

And Abraham said to his eldest servant Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh. And I will make thee swear by the Lord, God of heaven… (24:2)

Forthwith, the servant acceded to his master’s request:

And the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master (Ibid. 9)

The Midrash aptly explains the difference between Joseph’s behavior and that of Abraham’s servant:

Said Rabbi Isaac: The servant acted servilely and the free man as a free agent. The servant acted servilely, as it is said: “And the servant put his hand Whilst the freeman acted as a free agent: “And he said, I will do as thou has said ” Bereshit Rabbah 96

A servant has to do the behest of others. Since he is not a free agent, he must be bound an oath or otherwise compelled, to make sure that he caries out his obligations. It does not matter whether the force applied is moral or physical. A free agent however, is only bound by his conscience, and chooses his own actions in accordance with his own freely arrived at decisions.

Malbim makes a similar distinction. Joseph, Malbim explains, replied to his father that it was better for him not to swear but rather to carry out his obligations as part of his filial duty. It was better for him to do it out of his own free will, rather than be bound on oath. In the latter instance, he could not take the credit for fulfilling his obligations freely. This explanation may help us understand Biblical and Rabbinic disapproval of vows. Man should rather conduct himself as a free agent rather than be bound by external artificial bonds. Nevertheless, Jacob insisted on Joseph taking an oath:

And he said, Swear unto me.

The reason for this is quite clear when we recall what we said at the beginning about Joseph’s need to placate Pharaoh and approach him diplomatically. On oath:” My father made me swear”, Joseph’s request would carry greater force in Pharaoh’s eyes. Pharaoh’s answer indicates the effect Joseph’s words had on him:

Go up and bury thy father as he made thee swear. (50:6)