Parashat Va-y'chi is a Reminder to Keep Hope Alive

Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Michael Dolgin

I find it hard to believe that we have already arrived at the last portion in the book of Genesis! By now, the matriarchs and patriarchs are like old friends: We’ve seen them celebrate and mourn, laugh and cry, hug, kiss, and wrestle. This book reminds us that we are part of a Jewish and human family, and like all families, ours is complicated and idiosyncratic. Genesis is a book of themes that recur, and Parashat Va-y’chi is no exception.

This final parashahParashahפָּרָשָׁהTorah portion. The five books of the Torah are divided into 54 parashiyot or portions. Each week, Jewish communities read one parashah (singular of parashiyot); in this way, Jewish communities read the entire Torah over the course of a year.  Depending on the calendar, some weeks will feature a “double-portion.” The name of each portion is taken from the first few significant words of the portion; plural: parashiyot in the book of Genesis comes at a powerful national and personal moment. The people of Israel are on their way to becoming just that: a people. The experience in Egypt, with all its twists and turns and slavery and redemption, begins in this week’s parashah. However, the personal aspect of Genesis seems to dominate its conclusion and truly forms its basic nature.

Consider the scene that occurs near its conclusion in 48:13-20. Joseph presents his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to his father Jacob/Israel. He is careful to place Manasseh, the elder, at Jacob’s right hand and Ephraim, the younger, at Jacob’s left. He then crosses his hands, using his right on Ephraim and his left on Manasseh. With his hands in this odd position, he pauses and blesses Joseph, who only seems to notice this strange positioning after he has been blessed.

He tells his father that he is blessing them in the wrong order, essentially trying hard to control the situation, but his father confounds his intentions. Jacob/Israel confirms aloud that this arrangement is no accident and then blesses his grandchildren in the way that the people of Israel are instructed to bless their own children: May God make you like these, like Ephraim and Manasseh.

So much is familiar: the patriarch who can no longer see clearly; the presentation of two sons at once; the older blessing the next generation in an unconventional way; the refusal to speak up immediately, choosing instead to keep the matter in mind; the parent who tries to control the conferring of the family blessing while its source is unwilling to be guided; the apparent confusion of identities or birthrights.

All of these themes have visited us before, except for one thing: Jacob says aloud that he is crossing his hands-on purpose. The cycle of unconscious conflict is broken with a few words. Only then does Jacob say that this is how we shall bless our descendants. Perhaps this means that we must be open and thoughtful about the blessings that we offer, that we cannot always control our situations. Still, despite all of this, we must have the courage to go forward and offer blessing.

It could be that the blessing offered for our people is related to this scene’s earlier introduction offered by Jacob/Israel. In verse 11, he reflects that he had thought he’d never again see Joseph’s face, and here he has the chance to see his favored son’s children. Perhaps this is the real blessing we offer when we use these words. As we recall the entire book of Genesis, with its complexities and conundrums, the text reminds us that we must always have hope.

We must hope that those whom we have lost are not entirely gone; that family can surprise us in good ways.

We must hope that blessings are available even when we are sure that the window for holiness and goodness has closed.

We must hope that we can see the generations after us, whether they be our genetic descendants or not, acting on the ideals and values that we hold dear.

We must hope that even when we and those we love make mistakes, they can still lead to sweet or bittersweet possibilities.

Each year, I find it difficult to bid farewell to these old friends, our matriarchs and patriarchs. Nevertheless, there is another theme that recurs: Each year, these members of my distant family surprise me. Their stories teach me new lessons and offer remarkable insights. I am grateful to Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the Union for Reform Judaism for inviting me to share thoughts with you about this profound book. I have learned from looking again more closely at these holy texts and from the responses that many of you, dear reader, have sent me.

May this book inspire us to continue our learning and look again at sacred words we thought we already understood. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek, may we grow stronger and draw strength from our Torah and from one another!