Archive for Vayechi

Vayechi: Who is Worthy?

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

“Then Yisrael saw Yosef”s sons, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 48:8)

Good morning!

We’re concluding the Book of Bereshit, so it’s not surprising that the two main characters of the latter chapters die in this week’s Torah reading: first Yaakov, then, at the very end, Yosef, the second-in-command of all Egypt. However, the portion is mostly concerned with blessing: first Yaakov adopts Yosef’s sons as his own, blessing them, and then calls all of his sons to his deathbed to bless them and instruct them before he dies.

The scene at the beginning of chapter 48 reminds us of an earlier period of Yaakov’s own life: just as Yaakov’s father Yitzhak was nearly blind, and not quite sure which son he was blessing, so too now Yaakov is described (vs 10) as having eyes “heavy with age.” He seems unable to recognize his grandsons, asking, as in the verse above, who they are, as if perhaps he didn’t see them or isn’t sure if they are the grandsons he is offering to bless.

It’s possible that Ephraim and Menashe were dressed as Egyptian princes rather than Hebrew shepherds, or it’s possible that Yaakov was simply not able to see very well, but given that he’s just offered to bless them, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t know who they are.  So many commentators take the verse above, ending with the question, “who are these?” as referring not to Yosef’s sons, but to evil kings who will descend from them, a vision which gives Yaakov pause.

One midrash, picked up by our friend Rashi, implies that Yaakov’s eyes were clouded, as it were,  because the Divine Presence withdrew from him as he attempted to bless Ephraim and Menashe, because of these future kings like Achav and Jehu who would descend from them. This is also a problem: why would some future wicked king impede Yaakov’s blessing of his grandsons? After all, any stain on their future history is also a stain on his. I think this is why Rashi splits this midrash up into two pieces: first he brings the text  about the Divine Presence withdrawing from Yaakov in the first part of the verse, but when Yaakov asks” “who are these [young men]?” Rashi interpolates “who are these who are unworthy of blessing?”

Yet that question- who are these who are unworthy of blessing? – could be read more than one way: it could refer to the midrash about Ephraim and Menashe’s evil descendants, or it could be a rhetorical question: who are these young men that we might deem them unworthy of blessing for something that is not their fault? Or, even more pointedly- who am I  to say that they are unworthy of blessing since their descendants are also my own?

Read this way, Rashi’s comment turns Yaakov’s question around: it’s not about some future event seen by prophecy, but about his own humility in offering blessings to his grandsons just as they are. It’s not  about their worthiness, but his own. When Yaakov asks: who are these [young men]?, he might be asking: who am I to dare withhold my blessing when I so brazenly took one that did not belong to me? Seen this way, Yaakov’s question becomes one for all of us: how dare we withhold our blessings from others, even if they are, just like the rest of humanity, imperfect people who do imperfect things?

In the midrash, Yaakov knows that Ephraim and Menashe will have evil men among their descendants, yet nevertheless blesses them and brings them close. So too, we will all encounter others, in our families and congregations and communities, who may have some flaw in them- as do we all- but our job is nevertheless to love and bless and raise up those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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Vayechi: Seek to Understand

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude several stories: the story of Yaakov’s life, the story of the difficult relationship between Yosef and his brothers, and the story of Yosef himself, who dies at the very end of the book of Bereshit, making his surviving brothers swear to bring his bones up out of Egypt when they eventually leave. (Cf. Bereshit/ Genesis 50:24-26.)

Yet between the deaths of Yaakov and Yosef, there is a touching scene upon the return of the brothers from burying their father in the land of Israel: the brothers think that perhaps now, at last, Yosef will take revenge on them for their mistreatment of him decades earlier. He forgives them and reiterates his belief that God intended it for good, to bring him to power in Egypt in order to save the family. (Cf. 50:15-19.) The Torah begins this story with a detail that seems unnecessary at best :

When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘What if Yosef still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him! ‘ ” (50:15)

Rashi asks the obvious question: what’s up with telling us that Yosef’s brothers “saw that their father was dead?” They had all just come back from a long journey to bury him! Not only that- but we already know they are Yosef’s brothers and not somebody else’s brothers, so that’s another extra word- unless it was merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.*

To which Rashi might say- if he were in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta: corroborative fiddlestick!

Rather, Rashi understands verse 15 to be all of one piece: that is, the brothers saw the death of their father through Yosef, that is, Yosef’s actions. “Saw” in this reading is not a physical seeing, but understanding the significance of something. Rashi says that the brothers “saw” [ that is, fully understood the implications of ] Yaakov’s death when Yosef’s behavior changed, inasmuch as he would usually invite them to dine at his royal table, by way of honoring their father Yaakov. When their father died, Yosef didn’t invite them-  literally, “bring them close”- as he did before.

Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah’s phrasing offers us one answer as to why the brothers would suddenly fear that Yosef would take revenge on them, yet we might also say that if Yosef wanted to harm them, he had ample time and opportunity to do so without waiting till they all got home and settled. Thus, I think Rashi’s reading also illustrates another important principle: namely, we often have no idea what other people are thinking, and sometimes interpret their actions (a dinner invitation, or lack thereof) on the basis of our own fears, anxieties, guilt, or resentment. It seems to me that Yosef’s brothers are themselves revisiting their actions, and imagining that Yosef is feeling the same negative emotions that they are.

Taking this midrash at face value, we might further see this episode this as a sad miscommunication, with Yosef’s brothers unable to perceive his grief over their father’s death and misinterpreting his reticence as anger at them. Perhaps Yosef was confused as to how to proceed with his brothers, given his high status- maybe he was just as worried that they would resent him and their dependence upon him, as he was, after all, still one of the youngest brothers. People grieve in very different ways: some need time alone, some need time with others, some need to talk, some need to reflect privately, some need to get busy, some need to take quiet walks. Maybe Yosef didn’t invite his brothers to dinner because he didn’t know how to manage his different roles- as politician, father, brother, and grieving son- in the wake of Yaakov’s death.

Transitions are hard, and communicating with those around us at those times can be even harder. Rashi reminds us that it can be a peril to speculate too much about others; seeking to ask and understand without preconception can be a surer path to peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Click here if you don’t get the reference.

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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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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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Vayechi: Truth and Peace

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

This week we conclude the book of Bereshit/Genesis: the grand journey of Yaakov’s life is concluded with
his final return to the Land of Israel, where he is buried by his sons
in the cave purchased by his grandfather Avraham. After Yosef and his
brothers return to Egypt, the brothers are quite understandably
concerned that Yosef may finally exact revenge for their violence
against him when they were younger:

“Now Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died, and they said,
‘Perhaps Yosef will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did
to him.’ So they commanded [messengers to go] to Yosef , to say, ‘Your
father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to
Yosef : please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their
sin, for they did evil to you. Now please forgive the transgression of
the servants of the God of your father.’ ‘ Yosef wept when they spoke
to him. ” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:15-17)

This passage has inspired veritable rivers of commentary, because of a
neon-bright textual problem: there is no record in the Torah of Yaakov
saying what the brothers reported. Thus, Rashi (basing himself on
older sources) makes the obvious conclusion: the brothers lied about
their father’s putative plea so that there would be peace in the family.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, well, it seems to have worked,
and in fact, most commentators don’t have a problem with this
particular instance of lying, precisely because it leads to an
ethically desirable result: peace between the brothers. In general,
the Torah condemns lying and falsehood, as in, for example:

“You shall not bear false witness” (Shmot/Exodus 20:13)

“Keep far from a false matter” (Shmot 23:7)

“Neither shall you deal falsely nor lie to one another”
(Vayikra/Leviticus 19:11)

One could argue that these mitzvot have a juridical context- that is,
witnessing and legal testimony- but it’s still clear that our system
of religious ethics has truth-telling and integrity as a core value.
Still, the point that Rashi and others make is that truth in itself is
not the ultimate value; peace and human dignity may in certain
instances be a higher value. This makes sense when one considers the
underlying reason that truth is a value in the first place: when
people can’t trust each other, whether in the marketplace or the
courtroom or anywhere else, they cannot build bonds of intimacy,
caring, and justice.

Detailed discussions of these principles can be found in the links
below, but for today, it’s enough to point out that refraining from
lies is a clear principle of Jewish ethics and practice. However, in
certain extraordinary circumstances, it <may> be permissible to
“fudge” the truth or even lie in order to achieve peace,
reconciliation, or human dignity. “Shalom” is understood to be one of
the names of God in the Jewish tradition, and thus we do not condemn
Yosef’s brothers for bending the truth for the sake of life and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayechi: Life as Light

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

Shalom and happy new Gregorian year! It’s a new year on the date line
of your checks, but we are still reading from the book of
Bereshit/Genesis, just finishing it up this week with Vayechi, during
which Yaakov dies and is taken back to the Land of Israel, and Yosef
dies and makes his brothers promise to take his bones back to the Land
when they return.

However, in between those two dramatic moments is another: after
Yaakov dies, the ten brothers who sold Yosef into slavery become
worried that now he’ll take revenge on them. After all, he’s still the
Prime Minister of Egypt and they are just shepards out in the
boondocks- they are dependent on him and it’s reasonable for them to
assume that their father’s death might change the emotional dynamics
in the family. However, Yosef seems to forgive them, noting that
everything worked out for the best in the end:

“But Yosef said to them, ‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?
Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so
as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people.
And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he
reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-21)

The last few words of verse 21 are actually a bit more poetic than
rendered in the JPS translation quoted above: the Torah says that
Yosef spoke “al libam,” or “to their hearts.” Picking up on this
emotional language, a rabbi of the Talmud [in tractate Megillah, 16b]
explained that Yosef spoke words which were accepted by the hearts of
his brothers- that is, that he was effective in comforting and
reassuring them. He (R. Binyamin bar Yafet, in the name of R.
Eleazar), goes on to say that Yosef offered his brothers a parable,
which helped them understand that he harbored no ill will:

“If ten lights could not extinguish one light, how could one light
extinguish ten lights?”

A simple explanation of the parabel is that if the ten brothers could
not harm Yosef, because it was God’s will that Yosef would become a
ruler in Egypt, then certainly he, Yosef, cannot bring harm to his ten
brothers if they are destined to live and return to the Land. Yet
what’s fascinating about R. Binyamin’s midrash is that he imagines
Yosef speaking of his life, and the lives of his brothers, as light,
which seems to be a symbol of soul or spirit, connecting the life of a
person with the Light of God.

Perhaps R. Binyamin imagines Yosef as reminding his brothers that he
and they are not prisoners of the emotional past, enslaved by the
desire for revenge, but spiritual beings, children of the Living God,
who can always choose the way of holiness. The children of Avraham and
Sarah, of Yitzhak and Rivka, of Yaakov (who becomes Yisrael) and
Rachel and Leah are meant to be bearers of light, not of vengeance.
Thus it is incumbent upon them- and us, their spiritual heirs- to
choose forgiveness over grievance, to choose reconciliation over
resentment, to choose awareness of our spiritual gifts rather than
being mired in old hurts. In this way, light is added to light, and
the world is illuminated with love and grace.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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