In this week's parashah, Va-y'chi, there are three references to Jacob's wishes for burial. First, Jacob summons Joseph and says: "Place your hand under my thigh as a pledge?. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place." (Genesis 47:29-30) Later, after Jacob has addressed his sons, he instructs them, saying: "I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave?which is in the field of Machpelah?." (Genesis 49:29-30) And after Jacob's death, Joseph speaks to Pharaoh's court, saying: "My father made me swear saying,...'Be sure to bury me in the grave that I made ready for myself in the land of Canaan.'" (Genesis 50:5) Why were Jacob's instructions repeated three times?
When he first speaks with Joseph about his burial, Jacob says that he will "lie down with [his] fathers." This is not a reference to his burial place since the same verse specifically mentions that place. Rather, as The New JPS Commentary states, this is an idiomatic expression for death, similar to the term "will be gathered to one's kin." Jacob is not thinking of location: He is speaking about joining the fate of his father and grandfather in the legacy of the tradition they have built. He is thinking about becoming an ancestor.
When Jacob restates his request to his sons, he doesn't make them swear an oath, thus showing that it was not in their power to influence his decision. As The New JPS Commentary points out: "This is the only instance of the use of the phrase ['I am about to be gathered to my kin'] by the speaker about himself [in the Bible] and the only case in which 'kin' appears in the singular Hebrew form." What Jacob is doing here is aligning himself with his fathers and also giving his sons a shared mission. In so doing, he reunifies them--all of his sons--for after he dies. As proof, the sons feel empowered, and after Jacob's death, are finally able to approach Joseph and permanently reconcile with him.
When Joseph tells Pharaoh's court about the promise he made to his father, he changes Jacob's words. He states that his father made him swear by saying: "Be sure to...bury me in the grave that I made ready for myself [kariti]," a word that is literally understood by Rashi as "dug." The choice of this word is, at best, odd: Because one does not dig a cave, there is already a language problem. But let us take this issue one step farther: Let us accept this unusual word as a homonym for koret, as in the Yom Kippur morning Torah portion: "I make [koret] this covenant ... not with you alone." (Deuteronomy 29:13) What Jacob does on his deathbed is look toward the future, as illustrated by what comes next, namely, that Jacob's death is described without the use of the word "death." In fact, a midrash states that "Jacob, our father, did not die," although his death is referred to in the very next chapter.
Ramban suggests that the purpose of the midrashic interpretation that Jacob did not die is to show that the souls of the righteous are "bound in the bundle of life in the care of Adonai." (I Samuel 25:29) And that is exactly what Jacob did: He brought together the past, present, and future. He accomplished this by carefully choosing the words he used--even though they were about his own death--in order to connect the future generations.
Rabbi Barbara A. B. Symons is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.
Any family that engages in Jewish learning contributes most powerfully to Jewish continuity. Particularly precious are those shared experiences in which parent and child learn about Jewish rituals. Through their mutual embrace of Jewish rituals, mothers and fathers and their daughters and sons discover palpable ways to create spiritual space for themselves. In addition, their evolving comfort with rituals often leads to greater affection for and confidence with Jewish practice. As a result of this spiritual frame of reference, families become more motivated to cultivate the beautiful blessings of Judaism in their own lives and then pass them on to future generations.
This advocacy for family-based rituals finds inspiration in Parashat Vayechi. In this portion, Jacob adopts Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and bestows upon them a blessing that elevates them to equal status with all of the patriarch's children. Lying on his deathbed, Jacob asks Joseph to bring the boys close so that he can bless them. He kisses and embraces them and then places a hand on each child's head. A loving, spiritual intimacy permeates this interaction. Traditional commentary reveals that Jacob's blessing serves as the model for Birkat Habanim (also called Birkat Horim, Blessing of the Parents), the blessing parents make over their children during Shabbat Ma-ariv (evening) services in the synagogue or at the Shabbat table.
In his blessing, Jacob makes it clear that his two grandchildren will be the inheritors and conservators of Jewish traditions and values: "By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20) But when he first sees Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob seems to express concern and asks, "Who are these?" (Genesis 48:8) According to the midrash, Jacob's grandsons are so assimilated that Jacob does not know who they are. They speak and dress like Egyptian youth, not like members of the Hebrew tribes. (Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, vol. II, p. 137) Yet Jacob's concern does not prevent him from offering his blessing to them or modeling for his family a concrete spiritual action that is accessible to even the most assimilated of Israel's kin. Jacob knows that there are little things we can do to hold on to our Judaism in a warm and meaningful way even when assimilation greatly threatens Jewish continuity.
In an era of platform shoes, baggy pants, and baseball caps, we cannot expect a Reform child to look like a yeshivah student. In an age in which it is crucial for us to excel in the contemporary world, we cannot ignore the fact that our Jewish and secular practices will sometimes compete for our time and energy. However, small acts of Jewish ritual, like Birkat Habanim, allow parents to create simple, loving, and attractive spiritual space for their children on a weekly basis. By performing such acts, we stand a much greater chance of fostering our children's appreciation for Jewish living, thereby strengthening their commitment to a strong and vibrant Judaism and perhaps eliciting their blessing upon us in return.
Questions for Discussion
- Which Jewish rituals help you as a family to create a loving spiritual space that enables you to feel more connected as a family and as Jews?
- Ask your rabbi, cantor, or educator for a copy of Birkat Habanim so that you can recite it over your children during Shabbat services or at your Shabbat table. Should you bestow this blessing upon your child(ren), reflect upon how you feel as you do this. Ask each child how he or she feels when being blessed.
- Birkat Habanim is a blessing that parents bestow upon their sons and daughters. What blessing would you create to honor your parent(s)?
Rabbi Craig Marantz is the director of Education at The Temple in Atlanta, GA.
Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304