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Parshath Wayhi Starts in the Middle of the Parsha Because We Made It That Way

December 11, 2013

Usually around this time of year you get to hear divrei torah about how this week’s Torah reading begins in the middle of a parasha. That is, traditional Torah scrolls do not have our modern-day chapters and verses. Instead, they are broken into paragraphs, some long, some short. Most weekly readings begin at a point where a new paragraph begins. Wayhi is only one that does not.

It is strange that the last four verses of chapter 47, which appear in the same traditional paragraph as the preceding verses, suddenly digress from the topic at hand, namely how Joseph sold provisions to the Egyptians during the years of the famine. Rashi cites a midrash which attempts to account for that.

However, it is worth noting that according to the ancient practice of reading the Torah over the course of a three year cycle, the weekly reading would actually start at where the parasha begins. If you take a look at any Koren bible, mark 41 in Genesis, found in the margin opposite that which has the classic chapters and verses, starts at 46:28 and ends at 47:31, meaning that the 41st reading in the cycle included half of what we call Wayiggash and the first four verses of Wayhi.

Thus, any of those difficulties you hear about why this week’s parasha starts in the middle of a paragraph can be answered very neatly: at some point in post-talmudic history, we decided that Wayhi should start where it does. No more, no less. Indeed, last night I found that the Rashbam says similarly in his comments on the first verse of this week’s parasha.

But more than that, I have found that the entire mark 41 is actually one of those classic, symmetrically chiastic structures.

I. 46:28-30: Jacob leaves Canaan for Egypt, and announces that he can “now die” in peace after having been reunited with Joseph.

II. 46:31-47:6: The Israelites settle in Egypt, receiving their own land and provisions from the crown. Thus, though they were strangers, they were free men and at the top of the socio-economic ladder.

III. 47:7-12: Jacob meets Pharaoh, and describes how his tzurres shortened his life from that of his fathers’.

IV. 47:13-27: In contrast to (II), the famine causes the entire Egyptian people to sell all they have, including their bodies and land. Thus, ordinary Egyptians became strangers in their land, slaves to Pharaoh. This section is itself symmetrical, because the main narrative about the Egyptians begins and ends with verses about how the Israelites made a successful transition to Egypt.

V. 47:28-31: (The part that is the beginning of Way’hi). In contrast to (I), Jacob senses that his death is imminent, and has Joseph swear to bury him back in Canaan.

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