Passing the Torch
In the final year of his life, Yaakov began preparing himself and his children for the time when he will take leave of this world. He made arrangements to be buried in the land of Cannan (Bereshis 47:29), blessed the two sons of Yosef (48:15) and, in dramatic fashion, assembled his twelve sons (49:1) and blessed them – individually and collectively.
When making his burial arrangements, Yaakov turned to his powerful son Yosef and asked him to use his considerable influence to see to it that Yaakov’s final wishes be implemented. The Torah describes how Yaakov expressed his reluctance to be interned in Egypt. There were diverse reasons for his wishes. On the positive side, Yaakov wished to be buried with his parents and grandparents in the Cave of Machpeilah in Chevron. Additionally, he feared that he would be assigned deity status among the native Egyptians as a result of the miracles that occurred when he arrived in that country during the great famine (See Rashi 47:29, for additional concerns of Yaakov regarding this matter.)
Yaakov felt so strongly about his request that even after Yosef informed him that he would he would honor his wishes, Yaakov asked his son to commit to a formal oath pledging to follow his instructions.
Bowing … to Whom? … And Why?
A subject of much discussion among our sages is the concluding phrase of this chapter. The Torah describes (47:31) how Yaakov “Bowed on [to the] head of the bed,” when he heard that his son Yosef swore to him that he would be interned in Chevron. Two questions come to mind. Why would Yaakov bow at that particular time? And why would he direct his attention to the head of his bed?
Several explanations are offered by our commentaries to shed light on Yaakov’s actions. Rashi (47:31), quotes a Gemarah (Megilah 16b), suggesting that Yaakov was bowing to Yosef in deference to his royal status. Rashi posits two additional explanations. He proposes that Yaakov was bowing to Hashem with gratitude that each of his twelve children followed in his footsteps, a privilege that had eluded Yitzchak and Avrohom. Additionally, Yaakov bowed to the head of his bed due to the fact that the Shechina (Divine Presence) is present in the vicinity of an ailing person.
Passing the Torch
I would humbly like to suggest another possible perspective regarding the bowing of Yaakov to Yosef:
Yaakov’s life was filled with an almost endless stream of challenges. He was forced to deal with the enmity of Eisav and had to match wits with Lavan. He suffered through the violation of his daughter Dina in the city of Shechem and endured twenty-two years thinking that his beloved son Yosef had been killed. Now, at the sunset of his life, he was comforted by the presence of his children and grateful to Hashem that they were all committed to the lifelong lessons that he had taught them. Aside from blessing (and delivering constructive criticism to) his children, a task that he purposely left for his final days, one thing remained for him to do – arranging his burial plans. (See Rashi; Devarim 1:3, to better understand why Yaakov waited until his final days to address his children.)
Once that was accomplished, with the help of Yosef, it was now time to turn his thoughts to preparing for succession and securing the leadership that his beloved family members would need to survive the challenging environment of Egypt.
He then turned to his “ben zekunim; his wise son Yosef”, (see 37:3), and bowed to him as a sign of the transfer of leadership. He was informing Yosef that the time had come for him to assume the honor – and awesome responsibility – of the leadership of his people. (This line of reasoning would explain why he bowed to Yosef after Yaakov’s request was honored as opposed to the moment that Yosef arrived at his bedside.)
Perhaps Yaakov’s intention was to lovingly support Yosef during this difficult stage in Yosef’s life – as he faced the uncertain future without the comfort of his righteous father. Yaakov bowed to him to inform him that in his mind Yosef was his worthy successor, one who will carry the legacy of the Avos (Patriarchs) to the next generation.
Ready or Not
There are several seminal moments in our lives when we are called upon to ‘step up’ and assume leadership roles. For some of us it is on a larger scale as we assume significant responsibilities in our shuls, schools, and communal organizations.
But each and every one of us is a leader in his or her own right. We project our values and ideals outward in concentric circles; first to our close family members and friends, and then to people beyond our immediate sphere of influence.
The first major leap in our leadership roles is when we leave adolescence and build our families. We slowly disengage from the shelter and protection of our homes as we forge our own identities and chart the course of our lives – and the lives of our children.
Much later in life, we will eventually need to come to grips with the stunning reality that Yosef was faced with the moment his father bowed to him – proclaiming that the mantle of leadership was now passed to him.
But for now, as we pass through our teen years, our goal is to build our skill sets and develop the moral compass and level of spirituality that will assist us in being worthy leaders of our own families – and our expanding circles of influence.
Best wishes for a Gutten Shabbos
© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved
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