By: Rabbi Cheryl Peretz,
Associate Dean Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Torah Reading: Genesis 47:28-50:26
In this week's Torah portion, Vayechi, we complete the reading of the book of Genesis, meeting Jacob on his death bed, surrounded by his children. Having asked Joseph to take care of the details of his burial and ensure that he will be buried in Israel, Jacob summons his twelve sons, prepared to share final words with his children. Clearly a man with things on his mind and desire to share them, Jacob calls to his children saying: 'Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. Assemble yourselves, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and listen unto Israel your father. ' Knowing his life is coming to a close, Jacob has something to say and wants to make sure his children both listen to him and really hear what he has to say. And, so he proceeds with 27 verses of what has become known as Birkat Yaakov, the Blessing of Jacob.
Thinking of a father about to end his time in this world, it is not hard to imagine the desire to bless his children and leave them with words of love and encouragement. Yet, in a remarkably blunt and honest speech, what is recorded is Jacob's speech to each one of his children, praising them for their successes and rebuking them for their shortcomings. He tells Rueben he is 'unstable as water', he accuses Simeon and Levi of intense, excessive rage, of and of being comrades who joined together in conspiracy and violence. Issachar, he characterizes as a 'strong boned donkey" and Dan a 'serpent on the highway'. And his youngest child, Benjamin, he calls a 'ravenous wolf'.
Abarbanel, the Spanish commentator, comments that the term "Blessing" of Jacob might be misleading in that some of these addresses are clearly derogatory and admonishing, therefore concluding that the purpose of Jacobs words was not blessing, but rather prophecy of what would become of each in the future. The blessing, says Abarbanel, only comes at the end of the speech when Torah explicitly says that Jacob blessed 'each according to his own blessing'. He comments that the key to understanding the difference between the prophecy and the blessing lies in the repetition in the first verse 'hear, ye sons of Jacob; and listen unto Israel your father.' Jacob is insistent on having a receptive audience in his sons so that they wouldn't underestimate what he was about to say to them. He deemed his speech important enough to demand that they listen because they were "Children of Israel," the children of the man who wrestled with an Angel of God; if that alone didn't suffice, then they should take heed as "children of their father," as children who are bound to honor their father.
So, what was so important for them to hear? The criticism? Their past mistakes? Or perhaps what Jacob wanted them to hear was that despite the challenges they faced and the consequences of their actions, each was still part of the family, still welcome at his side. Furthermore, he wants them to know that each of them would be part of the new nation in formation. The past was not forgotten, but a part of who they are and where they stand, Yet, regardless of what they had done in the past they would remain part of the covenanted people and would continue to carry with them their strengths, their weaknesses, their experiences and their witnesses. Jacob's blunt honesty is at once his own acceptance of each one and his vision of their future place in the ongoing destiny of our people.
Then and only then could Jacob find the words to bless each one of them with the blessing they needed. And then and only then could Jacob find the peace to face his Creator.
As children of Israel, may we too be blessed with the blunt honest look at our family members and may we, like Jacob, find the peace of mind to embrace each of them, and to envision their place in the future ongoing destiny of our people.