Friday December 29th, 2017
12 Tevet 5778
This week in our cycle of Torah, we come to Parshat Vayechi which, among other things, marks a number of endings. Jacob, our patriarch and namesake, reaches the end of his life and as he lays on his death bed he calls his family to him that he might bless them and bestow on them their birthrights.
The scene that follows seems almost to be a mirror image of the death of another patriarch, Isaac, Jacob’s own father, who blessed his sons at the moment of his death and yet, in a moment of confusion and deceit, bestows the blessing of the firstborn upon the younger Jacob instead of the elder, Esau.
This time however, things are a bit different. Each of Jacob’s sons is called to his bedside. Each of them receives a blessing, not based on birth order or rightful inheritance, but in fact, based on who they are and the destiny he sees for them. Jacob, unlike his father Isaac, does this on purpose perhaps to suggest that rather than fight over a limited amount of blessings, maybe there are enough blessing and yes, enough love to go around.
Jacob knows the pitfalls of favoritism and blind adherence to age old traditions better than anyone. In fact, from his first breath, Jacob’s entire life is full of familial conflict.
From our first introduction to Jacob and his twin brother Esau in utero, we learn that they were at odds. Jacob, comes out of the womb chasing his brother, holding his heel, always striving to catch up, to be first, to be seen, to be enough.
As an adult, Jacob manipulates and deceives his family by stealing his brother’s birthright right out from under him. Jacob, the second born, did not believe that he was enough to merit a blessing of his own – perhaps because society told him that he didn’t deserve it, perhaps because he didn’t believe it himself. And in the end, he loses years and years of relationship with his brother by running away from the conflict in fear and despair.
Jacob then grows up and has a family of his own and again, we are faced with familial drama and deceit. Jacob, who himself knew the pain of parental favoritism, loves his son Joseph best and makes that known to all his other sons. He favors Joseph so clearly that the rest of his sons turn to violence and leave their brother in a pit to die. His sons then return to Jacob’s house, lie to him about the circumstances of Joseph’s disappearance and the cycle of hurt and deception. continues. L’dor vador, from generation to generation.
On its face, this family is not one to look to as an example. We are known as the people of the book and we are taught that this sacred text is a blueprint of the values by which we should live our lives. And yet, when we look at these stories and we see some of this familial drama, one might think we were reading the plot of a really engaging television series as opposed to the lives of our biblical ancestors.
However, these forebears of ours, flawed as they may have been, have something to teach us. Systems, families, people are habitual in nature. We repeat patterns over and over again, whether those patterns are productive or destructive. Parshat Vayechi highlights the patterns inherent to Jacob and then Joseph's life. It is an accounting of the end of the lives of two great, and yet deeply flawed men.
Parshat Vayechi highlights the patterns inherent to Jacob and then Joseph’s life. It is an accounting of the end of the lives of two great, and yet deeply flawed men.
And yet, Jacob and his son Joseph not only model complicated dynamics with their brothers but they also show us how to ask for forgiveness, how to forgive, and how to rebuild a relationship that one might ultimately assume was broken. A few chapters ago, Jacob and Esau reconciled. The brothers reunited. They embraced and before bidding each other farewell, they forgave each other for the pain they had caused.
Joseph’s story too is one of forgiveness and reconciliation rather than anger, pain and trauma. When he meets his brothers again he finds himself in a position of power, but Joseph, like his uncle Esau, ultimately chooses forgiveness. He chooses family. He chooses love.
As you may know, at the conclusion of a book of Torah, it is customary to recite the words, chazak chazak v’nitchazek – strength, strength, may we be strengthened.
Parshat Vayechi marks not only the end of Jacob and Joseph’s lives, respectively, but also the end of the first book of Torah. As you heard from Emily earlier, our calendars have aligned this year in such a way that the final chapter of Genesis falls on the final Shabbat of our secular calendar year.
As such, tomorrow, we as a people will utter these words and pray for strength as we move on to the next chapter. In the cycle of Torah, our forefathers are moving on after the deaths of giants. Our people move on to the next chapter in our story. And we too, move on to the next chapter in our lives.
In Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet also corresponds to a number. For example, the number 18 is significant and often called to mind on special occasions because it corresponds to the letters ח and י meaning Chai – or life.
This coming year is 2018 – so the numbers that begin and end our year are 2 and 8. 28 in Hebrew corresponds to כח which translated is Koach – another word for strength.
So as we prepare to conclude one chapter and begin another; may we indeed draw strength from one another. May this coming year ahead be one filled with strengths from start to finish. May we be strengthened by the bonds of community and fellowship. May we find ourselves fortified by our human capacity to not only love but forgive. May we learn from our mistakes and be strengthened by them and may we always, always draw upon the strengths of our own individual blessings; remembering that we each count, we are each enough, and we are each deserving of the many blessings in our lives.
Please join me in saying - Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek.