Vayechi: The Blessing of T’shuvah

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portion: Vayechi

“. . . when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Ephrat; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrat.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 48:7) 

Good morning! 

In this final Torah portion of the book of Bereshit, there’s lots of death and remembrance of death. (Feeling cheery now?) 

Yaakov prepares for death by blessing his grandsons and then his sons at his deathbed, but also makes Yosef swear to bury him in the land of Canaan, where his father Yitzhak and his grandfather Avraham are buried, at the Cave of the Machepelah. These two preparations for death- blessing his grandsons and sons, and letting his family know his wishes for burial- are intertwined in the parshah. In the middle of explaining that he is adopting Yosef’s children as his own for purposes of inheritance, Yaakov mentions that Yosef’s mother, Rachel, died in Canaan but was not in fact buried in the ancestral burial cave with the other patriarchs and matriarchs. She died in childbirth (back in Bereshit 35) and is buried not too far from where she passed. 

Some commentators seem to think that perhaps Yaakov felt guilty about this. After all, at the very time he’s asking Yosef to carry his body across the Sinai peninsula and up to the land of Israel, he has to confess that he didn’t even take Yosef’s mother a few hundred yards to a settled town for burial- he just set up a marker by the side of the road. 

It seems to me that the Torah is portraying Yaakov as wanting to bless his children with both fine words and also as the example of one who does t’shuvah – repentance or return– right until the end. After all, if Yaakov is feeling guilt or shame about the way he handled Rachel’s death, then confessing that failing is one important way to achieve the reconciliation necessary for his final blessing of his sons. He is confident on his deathbed that Yosef will keep his promise, because he himself has drawn Yosef closer to him with his implied request for forgiveness. It could not have been easy to admit to Yosef that he had not properly honored Yosef’s mother, who was Yaakov’s first love and favored wife- but perhaps it was necessary, so that after a life of hard wandering, Yaakov could die in peace. 

In this reading, Yaakov shows his powerful son, the Prime Minister of Egypt, that it’s human to make mistakes, and even more human to humbly confess them. In these final weeks of Yaakov’s life, he gives his sons blessings, encouragement, rebuke and advice, according to their circumstances; but perhaps the greatest gift was his honesty and humility, which continues to be an example and inheritance for his descendants in present times. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 
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1 Comment »

  1. Stephen said

    Well done! Especially because Yaacov was a difficult father, this devar Torah really highlights the virtues of parental humility.
    We might compare this episode of truthfulness with another episode in the parsha, namely, the 10 older brothers telling Yosef that father Yaacov asked before he died that Yosef forgive them for selling him into slavery. There is no evidence that Yaacov ever said that.
    So, in contrast to Rabbi L’s case above, where Yaacov “comes clean” with his transgression, the case of the 10 brothers telling Yosef to forgive them seems to be an act of dissembling.
    We can understand why the brothers invoke their Dad on their behalf. But does that maneuver actually have a negative effect? — Doesn’t it keep the brothers and Yosef from having a full and true reconciliation based on their own teshuvah and Yosef’s great power of forgiveness?

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