Vayechi: A Chance to Start Anew

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we are not only concluding the book of Bereshit/Genesis with
the Torah portion Vayechi, we are also continuing another story we
started a few weeks ago, the story of King David’s death and the
succession of his son Shlomo to the throne.

The two stories- Avraham/Yitzhak/Yaakov and David/Shlomo and his
brothers, are connected by the haftarot (plural of haftarah) for the
Torah portions Chayei Sarah and this week’s portion, Vayechi. In
Chayei Sarah, Avraham arranges for his servant to find a wife for his
son Yitzhak, and is finally buried by both Yitzhak and Yishmael after
taking another wife and having more children in his final years. The
haftarah for Chayei Sarah is the opening chapter of 1 Kings, in which
King David is old but his family is divided, with tension and intrigue
between his sons over the succession to the throne.

This week, it is Yaakov who is near death, but in his final days he
“adopts” Yosef’s sons as his own and blesses each of his sons with a
special, personal blessing. Then the haftarah picks up the story of
King David again, in 1 Kings chapter 2: Shlomo (Solomon) is
established as the next king, and David, on his deathbed, gives him
both a general moral exhortation and some very specific instructions
regarding “unfinished business” left over from David’s ascent to power
and long reign.

There is a clear contrast between Yaakov’s blessing of his sons and
David’s request to Shlomo that he take revenge on men who betrayed and
insulted him. It’s quite moving that Yaakov took in Yosef’s sons as
his own, while one feels the tension and strife in David’s household
as the sons compete for power. Remember, too, that years earlier, one
of David’s sons (Avshalom) had murdered another son, his half-brother
Amnon, and Avshalom himself died in a coup attempt some time after
that. (Cf. 2 Samuel 14-20)

So we might look at the two stories of Yaakov and David as different
models of relationship, and on a superficial level, one might say that
the message here is to look at one’s own way of relating to the world-
do we wish to leave a legacy of blessing, like Yaakov, or strife and
revenge, like David?

Yet it’s not so simple, because Yaakov- like David- also had sons who
struggled with each other and Yaakov himself cheated his own brother
and had to go into exile as a consequence. Here’s my interpretation:
the real contrast in these two stories is not in the fathers, but in
the sons. Shlomo, when he becomes king, indeed takes revenge on his
father’s enemies- his reign begins with blood and vengeance.

Yosef, on the other hand, has the power of vengeance in his hands, and
doesn’t use it. In the very last chapter of Bereshit, after Yaakov is
buried, Yosef’s brothers come to him, fearing he will at last take
revenge now that Yaakov is gone- but he doesn’t do it, and instead
promises to sustain them in his role as prime minister of Egypt.

Change is hard- all kinds of emotions are unleashed when families,
groups or even societies go through transitions, even happy ones. Our
challenge is to use every transition as an opportunity to start anew,
letting go of unnecessary resentments and past hurts. What a shame
that David couldn’t do that even on his deathbed, and even Shlomo, the
wise ruler, was not wise enough to avoid taking on his father’s
“unfinished business.”

Yosef, on the other hand, is often called a “tzaddik,” or righteous
man, perhaps precisely because of this: he knew when to forgive and
start anew.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

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