Parshat Vayechi

Torah Reading for Week of December 24-30, 2017

“The Power of Transmitting Blessing”
By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

This week we read Parshat Vayechi at the end of the Book of Genesis (Bereishit 47:28 – 50:26), telling the story of how Jacob, nearing the end of his life, blessed his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph, as well as all of Jacob’s other sons. You may have a bit of trouble finding the beginning of the passage in the Torah scroll since it is “stumah,” closed, with no space separating it from the previous parsha. Rashi explains that once Jacob died, the eyes and hearts of the Israelites were closed by the oppression of their subjugation, for it was then that they (the Egyptians) began to subjugate them. Another explanation is that Jacob wanted to reveal the future to his sons, and it was “closed” to him.

The main focus of this parsha is the deathbed blessing by Jacob. The act of blessing our children is very powerful. My father did it for my brother and me every Erev Shabbat all the years we were growing up. He blessed my husband Itzhak and me at our wedding, and Itzhak carried on that tradition of blessing our children Tali and Amir all through their childhood. Now our daughter and her husband bless their twin girls each Friday night as they welcome in Shabbat. The formula “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” is taken from Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons for the boys, and “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah for the girls” has been added, as well as the priestly blessing, “Yevarechecha Adonai…etc…” This is a weekly opportunity to place our hands on the heads of growing children and infuse them with a felt moment of our love, and add our own personal blessings.

But this portion speaks about an end-of-life blessing to the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob’s spiritual name): Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Levi, Benjamin, Joseph (in Genesis and Deuteronomy Ephraim and Menashe are represented by their eponymous father, Joseph). You may wish to imagine a blessing that hasn’t been recorded for his daughter Dina, as well.

The twelve sons are given blessings regarding their destiny here (Genesis 49), and again by Moses (Deuteronomy 33), and again later in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It is interesting to see the differences in the descriptions of the qualities and fate of the tribes through comparing these blessings. Each of Jacob’s sons is gifted with an image, and in some cases a “spirit animal” – the unstable water of Reuben, the lion of Judah, the harbor of seafaring Zevulun, the strong-boned ass of Issachar, the snake of Dan, the warrior of Gad, the rich, fat, prosperity of Asher, the roaming deer of Naftali, the strong, wild ass of Joseph, and the hungry wolf of Benjamin. These images inspired Marc Chagall to create the stained glass windows installed in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. These are like shields or banners of each tribe and describe something of the energy of the sons and the fate of the tribes through history.

What kind of end of life blessing might we leave for future generations? There is a tradition of creating an Ethical Will (see Jack Riemer’s book “So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them”). What are your most precious messages and values that you wish future generations to remember? What do you see as the strengths of your children or young people whom you mentor? We make sure our property is apportioned in our will, but we should also leave a legacy of inspiration, wisdom and love. “Vayechi Ya’akov” – And Jacob lived. May it be said at the end of our life that we truly lived, and left a lasting legacy.

Hazak hazak v’nit-hazek!

Let us be strong and strengthen one another as we come to the conclusion of the Book of Genesis.