Va-y'chi for Tweens

Va-y'chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26

Va-y'chi, the final parashah in B'reishit, brings the first book of the Torah full circle. The family stories of patriarchs and matriarchs culminate in the blessings of Jacob to his sons and grandsons. Many of the signature themes of Genesis are recapitulated in Va-y'chi: God's covenantal blessing to the line of Abraham; the arc of generations from childbirth to death; and the favoring of the younger son over the older (as Joseph's son Ephraim receives Jacob's blessing over and above his older brother Manasseh). The centerpiece of the portion is a sequence of twelve blessings, delivered by Jacob to each of his sons. To hear his words, Jacob brings his entire family together-for the last time, to be sure, but quite possibly for the first time as well.

Our selection comes from the sixth aliyah:

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and thus did their father speak to them as he blessed them, blessing each one with a blessing that befit him. (49:28)

Jacob's twelve sons have been a mixed bag for him. Joseph, vice-regent of Egypt, has risen to a position of unprecedented prestige. Young and innocent Benjamin has always held a special place in his doting father's heart. But others, like Simeon and Levi, disappointed their father by pursuing violence and vengeance; nor does Jacob recall kindly his first-born Reuben's dalliance with a family concubine. On his deathbed, Jacob responds "measure for measure", some sons receive praise; others receive criticism. Nevertheless, the Rabbis believed that Jacob's harshest words were chastisements of love. Or Hachayim, the classic commentary of Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696-1742),notes that Jacob's valedictory blessings amounted to what we might call "tough love." He was careful to castigate specific behaviors rather than offer categorical denunciations. Jacob speaks with brutal honesty-praise and critique side by side-rather than abandon any of his children or deprive them of an inheritance.

Jacob's evenhandedness marks a change from previous generations. Abraham gave all that he owned to Isaac. (Genesis 25:5) But Jacob found a blessing for each of his sons. Viewed in this light, Va-y'chi depicts a touching embrace of human flaws, a graceful acceptance of failure. We could say that Jacob has come to accept his children, "warts and all." What an important example he sets, because failure is part of every life. The stories of Genesis can be read like a list of letdowns: Adam and Eve must leave the Garden in humiliation; murderous Cain ushers in an era of sin; Noah shames himself in drunkenness; the builders of the Tower of Babel disperse in confusion; Abraham must abandon his son, Ishmael; Isaac, the victim of a trick, blesses the wrong child. Jacob's own family saga brings more than its fair share of regrets: a brother estranged, a wife unloved, a favored son who is hated by his brothers and sold into slavery. Note well the frailties and foibles of the Torah's all-too-human characters. They are not superheroes. They are not objects of worship. Even if they never existed in history, they are real in their humanity.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis once observed that we practice a particularly painful form of child abuse called "disappointment." Too many of our kids fear an A minus or a B plus in school; they are afraid to come in second in a competition. I regularly greet sixth graders who weigh less than their backpacks and who are being treated for the resultant stress of their schoolwork. Bar and bat mitzvah students confide in me that they obsess about "messing up" on the bimah. Jacob includes every child in his blessing. Can we include ours as well, even the one who tries and does not succeed? Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California observes: "If we demand success each time, if we leave no room for failure, our children's dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul." (Rabbi Feinstein's Divre Torah Archives, Vayechi)

The Torah suggests that Jacob's acceptance of failure in his loved ones begins with acceptance of his own failures. Shortly before he dies, Jacob is granted an audience with the benevolent Egyptian Pharaoh, who asks innocuously, "How many years have you lived?" Jacob's reply, "Few and miserable have been the days of the years of my life," suggests a healthy dose of self-awareness, especially of his errors. (Genesis 47:8-9) Jacob speaks not only of length of days, but also of the disappointments he has incurred along the way. He has had to struggle and suffer and lose dearly for every gain he made. But if Jacob leaves this world weary and worn, he also leaves it wise. His failures have taught him to love more deeply, give more freely, turn from deceit to openness, embrace his estranged brother Esau, and, at long last, gather his twelve sons for blessing.

A Yiddish expression has it that when a door is closed, God opens a window. We often miss the rich opportunities our failures provide. After ten thousand unsuccessful experiments with a storage battery, Thomas Edison remarked, "I have not failed. I have just discovered ten thousand ways that do not work." Would that we all could find in ourselves Edison's equanimity of spirit to accept failure, to move on and even to grow in wisdom.

Table Talk

  1. Think of some times in your life when you felt like you failed. In retrospect, what might you have learned from your setbacks? What did you learn from failure that you might not have learned from easy success?
  2. In this scene, Jacob brings his family together as a group, including everyone. At the same time, he recognizes the uniqueness of each individual. When have you had this experience? Can you think of a boss, friend, coach or family member who managed to unify a group while making each member feel special? How did that person accomplish this?
  3. The blessings of Jacob to his sons are framed in images drawn from nature, often comparing a son to a particular animal. Jewish custom still invites us to bless our children; one opportunity comes every Shabbat at the Friday night table. What images, metaphors, or analogies might you incorporate in speaking a blessing to another person such as your child?

For Further Learning

Both traditional and scholastic commentaries tend to agree that Jacob's blessings say as much or more about the fate of the future tribes of Israel than about their original namesakes. Consult a map of the locations of the tribes in the territory of ancient Israel. You will notice that some of Jacob's blessings speak directly to a tribe's geographical situation, e.g., Zebulun shall dwell at the seashore (Genesis 49:13) and others emphasize a tribe's military or strategic significance.

Reference Materials

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