Vayechi: Blessings Across Time

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Dear Friends- greetings from the Jersey shore, where we’ve temporarily relocated our Torah commentary production facilities during a few weeks of packing and moving. (All local, no worries.) My apologies for missing last week and I’m glad to be with you again.

This week’s Torah reading concludes the book of Bereshit [Genesis], along with the long narrative arcs of the story of Yaakov and his sons. Yet more than only wrapping up the stories of Yaakov, Yosef, and the rest of the brothers, the final portion of Bereshit concludes one of the largest themes of the entire book, which is: how shall brothers dwell together in peace, especially when they must share their father’s blessing?

If you’ll recall, brothers don’t fare so well in Bereshit: Cain and Abel, Noach’s sons, Yitzhak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, Yosef and his brothers- all stories of conflict. At the end of the story, however, we find Yaakov in Egypt, taking Yosef’s two sons as his own, offering them a blessing, but blessing the younger before the older- a setup for anger and blame, if the past is prelude.

First Yaakov blesses the boys out of his own personal history:

“The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm —
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” (Bereshit 48:16)

and then, a few verses later, blesses them with a wish for all future generations:

“So he blessed them on that day, saying, ‘With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manashe,’ ‘ and he placed Ephraim before Manashe. ” (48:20)

Verse 20, above, makes it directly into our contemporary practice just as the Torah spells out: to this day, when parents bless boys, they bless them that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. There are many, many explanations for why this is, but perhaps the simplest is that after generations of conflict over unequal blessings, Ephraim and Menashe seem content to live with each other, despite the inequities and imperfections of the world. Would that all our brothers and sisters (in both the literal and larger meanings of the words) would live peaceably with each other despite life not being fair all the time!

Yet verse 16 is also an important verse liturgically, showing up as part of the “bedtime Shma” [which is the Shma along with other verses and prayers said in bed right before sleeping] and is also recited in many traditions on Saturday night, at the conclusion of Shabbat. To me, what’s interesting about verse 16 is Yaakov’s framing of his own story: that an angel redeemed him from all harm and should similarly protect his grandsons. Rashi says this specifically refers to the angel who appeared in chapter 31 but to me it seems more of a general reflection on his life’s journeys.

Of course, Yaakov’s life was one of struggle, toil and danger, and perhaps only in retrospect was he able to have a sense of redemption. He specifically wants Ephraim and Menashe to be the agents wherein he- Yaakov- along with Avraham and Yitzhak, will be remembered, yet one might imagine that he hopes that his grandson’s life will be a bit easier than his was.

To me, the practice of reciting verse 16 at moments of transition- from waking to sleep, from Shabbat to the work week- suggests that what we’re asking for is not only protection, per se, but a sense of perspective, a sense of life’s progress having great meaning despite the temporary struggles. We want to remember that just as we recall our ancestors, someday, God willing, someone will remember us; history will unfold through us to future generations.

That, to me, is how Yaakov was blessing the boys: to remember the story of their ancestors and derive strength from it. That in turn might cultivate an awareness that they too will be somebody’s ancestors- and how might we all live differently with a constant consciousness that future generations may someday recall our stories? Perhaps this is what is means to be like Ephraim and Menashe- to be rooted in history but oriented towards the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

P.S.- you’ll find the Torah readings here and a guide to the practice of blessing one’s children here.

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