Thursday, 12 Jan 2017

Written by Daniela Touati

At the beginning of January, for the first time, I accompanied a family following the death of their grandfather. The Patriarch had left behind his first wife with whom he had 3 sons who themselves had 7 children. His non-Jewish partner of 35 years, on her part, had 2 children, 4 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. A modern composite and blended family.

His closest family members had died during the Holocaust. As a result, he had rejected the Jewish religion but not his Judaism. He left no instructions about his funeral and his children, some observant Jews, have had to imagine what he would have wanted. … So I found myself, a neophyte, in front of the grave of an unknown, as the spokesperson of the family.

Some people depart too quickly or do not have the courage to leave a final message to their family. Others know how to take advantage of this suspended time and get ready before “the final curtain”. It may be a valuable and sometimes restorative moment to share with the loved ones. It might be a time to disclose one’s vulnerability, one’s generosity but also one’s lucidity. It is a blessing to be able to look back with no shame at one’s past (even if, as in this case, the presence of God was set aside).

The end of Jacob’s life is remarkable in many ways. In the previous Parashah, Jacob opened up to Pharaoh and complained about his life: “and Jacob said to Pharaoh: the years of my stay [on Earth] are one hundred thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life…». (Genesis 47: 9).

On the contrary, Jacob seems at peace in Vayehi. The double meaning of this verb “and he lived,” or “he settled down” may be an allusion to the reconciliation he had found in Egypt. “And Jacob lived (or settled down for) 17 years in Egypt” (Genesis 47: 28).  Jacob has miraculously found his favourite son Joseph and discovered that he even had grandchildren: Ephraim and Manasseh. He managed to surround himself with his ‘tribe’, and lived a happy and peaceful life. These last 17 years healed the previous ones.

When Jacob’s end was near, he gathered his sons to foretell what would occur at “the end of days” – “aharit yamim”. He left to his children a poem, a prophecy. He envisioned what would happen to them, a ready-made destiny, where there was no place for any change, for any teshuvah – repentance. The language was rather cold, it was not the language, strictly speaking, of a loving father, but rather of a judge, able to see through them without any affect. His individual “blessings” looked like instructions.

Under his apparent coldness, Jacob was dealing with very mixed feelings.

According to the midrash he was anxious that his children would not fulfil their part of the covenant, that divisions might ensue.

But this liminal moment between life and death did not have to be like this.

Rashi guides us to an interpretation that opens other perspectives: in the Torah scroll, there is no separation, no space between parashat Vaygash and parashat Vayehi, it is called a closed parashah or parashah stumah. In the words of Rashi “it is the most closed of all the Torah portions”. He makes a link between the closure of the parashah and the shutdown of Jacob’s vision[1].

Jacob lost his sense of direction, the Shekhinah departed from him and probably for this reason he could not speak from his heart anymore. His anxiety and fear blocked his vision.

An appeased Jacob was presented with the opportunity to self-reflect on the imperfect father he had been. He could have found words to repair the moral wounds he had inflicted on his sons – the jealousy that damaged their relationship – since he himself had let the rot set in, ostensibly showing his preference for Joseph.

He offered them instead a “freeze frame”, which did not release them from their own destiny. On the contrary, the wounds were still open. Indeed, after Jacob’s funeral and the mourning period, the brothers continued to fear that Joseph might take revenge on them: “and what if Joseph kept a grudge against us and made us pay all the evil we did to him? (Gen. 50: 15).  Since Jacob missed an opportunity to say some appeasing words, the peace among the 12 siblings could not be sustained. As a result, the threat of division is our legacy until today.

On his deathbed, Jacob missed an opportunity to be fully himself – Israel, in the sense of ישר אל – to be straightened by God.

Since there is no such thing as perfection, most of us live unfulfilled lives, marked by break-ups. This parashah teaches us not to wait for the end of our days to bring us together. It teaches us to weigh our words carefully and try to appease the resentment, anger, jealousy that too often spoil the relationships with our dearest ones. Let us remember the words of Rabbi Susia: “in the world to come the question will not be: why haven’t you been Moses? But why haven’t you been Susia?” We are commanded to be truly ourselves, to be able to show our vulnerability, which may be like a breath of fresh air towards the other, before it is too late…

Student rabbi Daniela Touati

[1] Cited by Aviva Zornberg p.356-357 dans “Genesis The Beginning of Desire”

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.