Parashat Vayigash concludes with the verse: “And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen; they acquired holdings in it, and were fertile and increased greatly” (47:27). On its face, this verse appears to parallel the first verse of parashat Vayeishev: “And Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan” (37:1).
The Talmud sees an ominous parallel: “R. Johanan said: Wherever [Scripture] writes ‘And he dwelled’, it denotes trouble, Thus: And Israel dwelled in Shittim — and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab; And Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan — and Joseph brought ill report of them to his father; And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen — And Israel’s time to die drew near…” (Sanhedrin 106a).
What does the word “dwell” signify? Should it make us worry? Elsewhere in our parasha we read: “We have come to sojourn in the land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks because the famine is severe in the land of Canaan; pray, then, let your servants dwell in the land of Goshen” (47:4). At first glance, the verse appears to present a simple literary parallelism in which “sojourn” is equivalent to “dwell”. But we have a strikingly similar verse in parashat Lekh Lekha: “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, because the famine was severe in the land” (12:10). This would seem to indicate that the word “sojourn” can describe an intentionally temporary stay, as we also see in the verse: “This person came as a sojourner and he sets himself up to judge” (19:9). As opposed to that, “dwell” may imply a more permanent presence, as in the verse “And Joseph dwelled in Egypt, he and his father’s household, and Joseph lived a hundred and ten years” (50:22). If so, then perhaps we may understand the request made by Jacob’s sons not as presenting two parallel clauses, but rather as a portent: We came to sojourn temporarily, but in the end we will settle permanently.
In his commentary to the first verse of parashat Vayehi, R. David Kimhi (“Radak” – 1160-1235) makes an observation that reinforces the sense that the parallel between Vayeishev and Vayigash is intentional: “Just as Joseph lived in Jacob’s care for seventeen years, so Jacob lived in Joseph’s care for seventeen years”. Kimhi’s statement makes us realize that the verse “And Jacob dwelled in the … in the land of Canaan” is followed by: “This is the lineage of Jacob ¬¬– Joseph, was seventeen years old…” (Genesis 37:2), and the final verse of parashat Vayigash – “And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt” – is followed by “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years…” (47:28). It would thus appear that the language employed to tell the two stories emphasizes the strong connection between the events that led to Joseph’s descent to Egypt and the end of Jacob’s dwelling in Canaan.
1. As Kimhi shows us, there is an important literary connection between the last verse of Vayigash and the first verse of Vayehi. Why did the sages choose to separate these two related verses in establishing the weekly Torah portions?
2. As Rashi, R. Bahya b. Asher and other commentators note, parashat Vayehi is “closed”. In other words, if one looks at a parchment Torah scroll, one sees that all parashot either begin on a new line, or following a blank space that separates the parashot, except in the case of Vayehi, which begins without any break dividing it from the preceding parasha of Vayigash. The dividing space appears only following the verse “And he said, ‘Swear to me.” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed at the head of the bed” (47:31). Visually, it would appear that the parasha following Vayigash should begin with the verse “Some time afterward, Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill’…” (48:1). In his commentary to Vayehi, R. Samuel b. Meir (“Rashbam” – 1080-1174) suggests: “In principle, this parasha begins with ‘And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt’, which is connected to the verse ‘And Jacob lived”. But the congregations did not wish to end parashat Vayigash with ‘thus the land passed to Pharaoh’, and ended it with ‘And Israel dwelled’.” In other words, according to Rashbam, the first verse of Vayeishev should have been “And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt,” but that would mean ending Vayigash with the transfer of the land to Pharaoh. Why would did Rashbam think that this would be an inappropriate ending? While Rashbam appears to provide a simple, cogent explanation for why parashat Vayehi is “closed”, upon further consideration it seems odd. Even if Vayehi were to begin with the verse “And Israel dwelled…”, the parasha would still be “closed”. Why didn’t Rashbam think that Vayigash should properly end with “And Israel bowed at the head of the bed”?
3. In Reading Prophetic Narratives, Prof. Uriel Simon writes that “just as returning to one’s point of departure may be regarded as cancelling out the journey, retracing one’s footsteps can be regarded as negating one’s mission and abandoning its goal. Failure and frustration are reflected in a return over the very same road, as may be inferred from Isaiah’s proclamation about Sennacherib, king of Assyria: ‘He shall go back by the way he came….” Similarly, the prohibition upon returning to Egypt “that you must not go back that way again” (Deut. 17:16) expresses the view that “returning there voluntarily is tantamount to ingratitude and rejection of the greatest act of grace ever bestowed upon Israel.” Should the verse “And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt” be understood simply as serving to close a narrative circle, or might it imply a negation of “And Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan”?