Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vayechi 5781
What does it take to love flawed human beings? In the last parasha of the Book of Genesis, Vayechi, Jacob cannot teach us this. But his son Joseph can. As we welcome 2021, let’s see what we can learn from them both.
The book of the beginning of life and the story of our original Jewish family ends with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph. Jacob, also known as Israel, who fathered the twelve tribes of our people, is lying on his deathbed and saying his farewells. He calls his long lost son Joseph to him, rejoicing that he has been reunited with this child of his beloved Rachel before he dies, and blessing Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, as if they were his own. In the process he confirms Joseph’s status as his favorite among all of his children, just before he invites in all Joseph’s brothers for their farewell blessings.
Jacob is identified in our tradition as a personification of truth. You might find this confusing, given that the best known episode in his life involves him deceiving his father Isaac to steal his brother’s blessing. Nonetheless, or maybe in an act of overcompensation, Jacob comes to represent the quality of truth. The Prophet Micah says, “Give truth unto Jacob” [7:20] and from there the Rabbis come to understand this patriarch as the exemplar of truth-telling. The Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, whose nickname means “the language of truth,” says in his commentary on this parasha that Jacob possessed a quality of truth that enabled him to fully live even while in exile. In other words, the parasha is called Vayechi “and he lived” to tell us that it was Jacob’s awareness of the deep truths of the Holy One that meant his soul was fully alive even while he was outside of the Promised Land. This is a beautiful teaching.
And a good excuse for the “blessings” Jacob gives to his children as his final words. We know that he is capable of offering words of love and blessing, because we see him do so for his sons Judah and Joseph. “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise…his eyes are dark as wine, his teeth as white as milk…the scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.” And to Joseph: “The God of your father who helps you, And Shaddai who blesses you With blessings of heaven above ….The blessings of your father Surpass the blessings of my ancestors, To the utmost bounds of the eternal hills. May they rest on the head of Joseph, On the brow of the elect of his brothers.”
We see that if he wants to, Jacob knows how to show love to his children through his words. But his love is not distributed evenly and does not reach his other children. Ruben receives these final words from his father: “unstable as water, you shall excel no longer.” Shimon and Levi, these: “Cursed be their anger so fierce. Let not my person be counted in their assembly…I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel.” Zebulon is told he will dwell by the seashore. Issachar will become “a toiling serf” Dan will be “a viper by the path.” Gad will be raided but will raid back. Asher will have rich bread. Naftali will yield lovely fawns. Benjamin is a ravenous wolf.
Surely these metaphors were more meaningful in their time, and one could argue that Jacob is simply telling the truth. He sees each of his children for who they are and is being honest about their strengths and weaknesses, and prospects for the future. But we know that these children have hungered for their father’s love from the beginning. Ten of them born to the unloved wife or the concubines. Jealous and craving of their father’s love enough to almost kill their brother and to send him off into slavery. Was his dying breath the time to rebuke them, to tell them of their limitations? Surely he had a half century to teach them, to reprove them in love.
But if he did love them all, he did not show it here. We have no evidence of his love and, we fear, neither did they. What prevented Jacob from learning how to love all of his children, even in their flaws? What stunted him from growing in this way, after receiving God’s love and blessing throughout his days? We can make the case from the last two parashiot that he does love Benjamin, Rachel’s other son. But that leaves nine sons, not to mention his daughter Dina, who isn’t even included in this farewell scene. What made Jacob unable to love ten of his children in any recognizable way? And what do we, as his descendants, learn from that?
In my parasha class this week, we considered this question. Many ideas were presented, but the one that stayed with me the most is that Jacob never let his heart break open, and because of that he never learned to forgive or love himself. After he wrestled with the angel and walked away limping we had hope that he was transformed. He had triumphed, he was no longer living in fear, but did he do teshuva for the crime of his youth? Did he repent, did he allow himself to break, to feel the shame, the remorse, the grief? Did he come to terms, did he forgive himself, ever, for what he did to his brother and his father? And when he met with Esau, and fell upon his neck weeping, were those tears of repentance or relief? Did he ever say, or was it ever clear, that he was sorry? Did he ask for and receive forgiveness from his brother? Or did he walk away from that scene knowing only that he no longer needed to fear his brother’s retribution, but not healed in that broken place within?
And so the repetition compulsion, by which we reiterate the dysfunction of our family of origin unless we interrupt it and heal it within ourselves, becomes Jacob’s story. He favors as he was favored. He loves only conditionally, only selectively. He cuts his children out of blessing as he was cut out. He does not know how to love the ugly places within himself or his children. He does not know how to heal his shame or theirs.
But the deathbed scene is not where the origin story ends. No. The sons bury their father. And on the way back, the midrash tells us that they pass the pit where Joseph was cast and, seeing their brother peer down into the abyss, they panic, thinking that now that their father is dead Joseph will exact revenge. They construct a story that Jacob wrote a note before he died warning Joseph not to harm his brothers for what they did to him. This concoction makes no sense, as we have no evidence that Jacob ever knew what they did to Joseph, and no evidence that he wrote such a note.
But this is where Joseph demonstrates that he has learned what his father never could. Untroubled by their obvious lie, Joseph compassionately reassures his brothers that he will do them no harm, and harbors no ill will toward them. Repeating the sentiment he expressed through tears in the previous parasha, Joseph speaks words of love to his brothers who harmed him so: “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.” The Torah tells us that “Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” Or in the Hebrew it says, vayinachem otam, vayidaber al libam” He comforted them, speaking to their hearts.
Joseph doesn’t pretend that they didn’t do terrible things, but he loves them anyway, and he shows it in his tone and in his words. And this is where our story ends, with an ancestor who has traversed the suffering of his life, using that suffering to break his heart open. Perhaps it was his years in exile, perhaps in particular the years in prison, when Joseph confronted his childhood arrogance and his subsequent shame. Perhaps that was when he learned to weep, for his maturity and wholeness most certainly is linked to his capacity for weeping. Perhaps that was when he learned to love himself, even the ugly places within himself. Only someone who had done that inner work could love the way he loves, honestly and unconditionally.
This is how our origin story ends, with Joseph as one who found a balance between love and truth. We read it just as we begin the year 2021, in a pandemic winter, when we have so much healing to do in our country, and ample opportunity to be with ourselves. To tell the truth about our lives and to let our hearts break open. To learn to forgive our flaws, our sins, our ugliness, and our sources of shame. To find a truth that is real and also loving. To soften to this very human being, right here, so imperfect and yet trying so hard. May we love ourselves honestly and wholly, and may we love others in the texture and fullness of who they are. May this be a year in which we become tender and forgiving, in which we heal ourselves and one another with truth and blessing upon our lips.