This week we have the end of the story of Genesis, which ends with death. First we have the last years of Jacob’s life, his blessing to his sons, then his death and burial. This is followed by a rather short section showing Joseph doesn’t exact revenge on his brothers, he sees three generations of his children, and then dies, with a promise to be buried in the land of his birth, but that won’t happen for quite a while.
One of the joys I take in doing midrash is taking a seemingly innocuous verse and look at it carefully. Some of the throwaway verses can lead in unexpected directions if one know how to look. For example, In this weeks portion we read an interesting verse:
23. And Joseph saw Ephraim’s children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were born upon Joseph’s knees. [Genesis 50]
Two questions come to me about this verse immediately: Why is Machir mentioned? Why specify the Third Generation? Machir is found next in the genealogies of Numbers 26, where the Gereration who will enter the land is enumerated.
29 The sons of Manasseh: of Machir, the family of the Machirites–and Machir begot Gilead; of Gilead, the family of the Gileadites. 30 These are the sons of Gilead: of Iezer, the family of the Iezerites; of Helek, the family of the Helekites; 31 and of Asriel, the family of the Asrielites; and of Shechem, the family of the Shechemites; 32 and of Shemida, the family of the Shemidaites; and of Hepher, the family of the Hepherites. 33 And Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.[Numbers 26]
A chapter later the Daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses to challenge of Halakah:
1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. [Numbers 27]
There is a verse in Torah which does mention both Egypt and the Third generation.
8 Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land. 9 The children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of the LORD. [Deuteronomy 23]
The descendants of a marriage and an Israelite does not enter into the congregation until the third generation.We of course have read earlier that Joseph’s wife is Egyptian:
45 And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt…50 And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On bore unto him. [Genesis 41]
If you believe that The Torah of Sinai was known to the patriarchs, this becomes a problem. Joseph intermarried an Egyptian and thus according to Deuteronomy 23:9, Neither Menasseh nor Machir are part of the congregation.They were officially not Jewish. This dilemma apparently had been thought of by some Tamudic-era Rabbis. The Perkei of Rabbi Eliezer and the Targum Yonatan b. Uzziel have a commentary about Asenath that solves the problem. Asenath was Dinah’s and Shechem’s daughter, and only adopted by Poti-phera. There is little evidence of this,it is mere midrashic commentary, but it does solve the problem. If Asenath was part of the family by matrilineal decent, her children would be part of the congregation. Of course, there is the other answer, which our verse suggests. Joseph lived long enough to see Gilead born, and see the descendants of his that would be included in the congregation.
One part of this verse provides an interesting entry into the issue of who is a Jew and How Egyptians fall into the schema . The mention of Machir, however provides us with a pointer to the genealogy of Gilead, Menasseh’s grandson, one of those born on Joseph’s knee. Gilead’s descendants will include the Daughters of Zelophehad, who will successfully challenge the rights of inheritance of property to sons only.
I then find a third question about the verse. How were Joseph’s great-grandchildren born on his knee? Did he hold their mother while she gave birth? Here I look to one of my favorite Talmud quotes.
R.Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan’s name: He who teaches his neighbor’s child Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him. [Sanhedrin. 19b]
Joseph taught Torah to his descendants. I doubt it was Torah mi Sinai, but the ethics, and wisdom he learned in his life, the connection to God he had even in the darkest pits and dungeons he taught to his children, his grand children and his great grandchildren. He knew his mistakes, and the mistakes of his brothers and father. He didn’t want to have them make the same mistakes again. Six generations later, five women descended from Joseph would not be at each other’s throats like Joseph and his brothers, but work together to change things. The Daughters of Zelophehad, make a strong case for a change in the rules as there were. They use the system of justice, not trickery or murder or any of the other foul tricks we find in Genesis. They learned the lesson.
Joseph was thirty when he was summoned to Pharaoh [Gen 41:46] Between thirty one and thirty seven he was a father of Ephraim and Menasseh [41:50] and he died at 110 [50:22], leaving somewhere around seventy five years he was a parent. For the majority of those he was a grandparent, and great-grandparent. Parents may be good at providing sustenance for the bodies, but Joseph spent his later years making sure the souls of his descendants were nourished as well.
Why is this verse important? You do not need to believe Joseph knew all of Torah to realize Joseph did teach Torah to his Grandchildren. After Joseph dies, there is none of the games between siblings we find in Genesis until the time of David, and there for very different reasons. I find that critically important to the world around us. Our future is in our future generations. It is not just in having children, but teaching them the lessons we have learned over the years. Otherwise they forget the lessons, experience, and wisdom of the past. Many times parents have a hard time doing this while supplying the clothing shelter and other physical needs of a child. It is a role for others who are not involved in those roles: Grandparents, teachers and other role models. I was reminded that this week in a world we are never to forget that Shoah, I saw a few individuals so horribly forget those lessons, and try to spread that forgetfulness and the consequential hate to others. Yet I saw a few who one would have expected to go along with this bunch of right wing extremists, but instead find their actions detestable — because they still remember the Holocaust. Next week, we see what happens when one forgets. We meet the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, and he enslaved the Israelites. But as much as the taskmasters tried to subjugate them, the Israelites remembered. As we will see int the the book of exodus, without remembering, they never would have been redeemed, for they never would not have cried out to God.