When Jacob and Joseph meet at the beginning of Va-y'chi, this final portion in Genesis, the weathered, weakened patriarch approaches his regal son. Jacob, a stranger in Egypt, is beholden to his son for his very life. He wants to give his son a blessing to assert the traditional relationship between father and son, between one who has worn the mantle of leadership and one who will take on that responsibility. But first Jacob must insure that he will return home, if not in life, then in death. Using words of deference that he had uttered only in preparation for and in meeting with his brother Esau (33:8, 10), Jacob now turns to his second youngest son and begins, "If I have found favor in your sight." Because Jacob feared that Esau would kill him, he used these humble words to approach his estranged brother.
Now Jacob may fear that Joseph, too, will keep him from returning home to Canaan. Jacob is a man whose life has been spent in a struggle for "right relations"- with his brother, his mother, his father, his father-in-law, his wives, his children. Now, at the end of his life, he asks his son to see him as a modest petitioner with a simple request.
"If I have found favor in your sight." Jacob asks Joseph to look at him, to see him as he is. Does he ask Joseph to see the similarities between their journeys from their childhood to the present? Jacob and Joseph are two men who were suddenly separated from their families and their homelands before their maturity. Jacob, the reluctant trickster, and Joseph, the precocious dream interpreter, both suffer grievous losses of mother and the company of siblings, and both are reunited with their brothers only after years of anger and distance. Is Jacob remembering his own father's clouded vision when Jacob demanded a blessing that was not rightly his? Is Jacob now asking his own son to see him clearly as his father could not?
What does it mean to find favor in another's sight? To be seen in the stark light of one's own humanness, one's own mortality? Joseph looked into his father's eyes and saw the weight of a long and troubled life. And he promised to carry him home. In that moment, Joseph also saw himself. As the portion ends, Joseph, too, prepares to die and asks his brothers to carry out his last wish: to be buried in Canaan with his ancestors. The words with which we conclude each book of the Torah have particular strength here: Chazak, chazak, venitchazak: From strength to strength we strengthen one another. When Jacob asked to be seen, Joseph responded. Their seeing each other became a blessing. When we look at one another, with intention and clarity, when we see ourselves mirrored in the eyes of those we encounter, we find blessing and strength.
Chazak, chazak, venitchazak.
For further reading
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995).
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD, spent nearly two decades working with synagogue leaders to keep congregations healthy and vibrant through the Union for Reform Judaism. The founding director of the Los Angeles Jewish Feminist Center and the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Program of the JCC of Manhattan, Elwell served as editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah (2002), poetry editor of the award winning The Torah: A Women's Commentary (2008), and as editor of Chapters of the Heart (2013). She continues her rabbinate through study, teaching, writing, and as a Spiritual Director.
To Reuben: "Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer."
To Simeon and Levi: "Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my being be counted in their assembly."
To Dan: "A viper by the path."
Each year as I read these "blessings" in Va-y'chi, I am troubled. How can a dying parent, speaking his last words to his children, say such things? As a teacher, I certainly want Jacob to use positive reinforcement as he lays out the future for his children. What was he thinking? Was he just a bitter old man who did not care for his children's feelings?
According to twentieth-century commentator Pinchas Peli, Jacob was practicing a kind of "tough love." By telling his children exactly how he evaluates them, Jacob, according to Peli, is consciously helping them look at themselves in a mirror. Through his criticism, Jacob hopes they will to grow and develop.
In thinking about this perspective, I expanded this idea and realized that, perhaps, Jacob is using his own experience as a model of how people mature. After all, his two encounters with a dream-mirror can be described as painful. In the first, he states, "How awesome is this place!" (Genesis 28:17) In the second of the dreams, the text tells us that Jacob literally limped afterwards! Both difficult occasions, however, were catalysts for change in the patriarch. Jacob, therefore, chose to criticize his children brutally in an effort to help them become more "menschlike."
As I consider this view, I do find it partially satisfying. After all, shouldn't parents do whatever it takes to help their children develop? I am, however, still bothered. It seems to me that there is a difference between Jacob's dreams and what he did to his children. There are two options for the dreams. Either God caused Jacob to have these visions or Jacob's conscience/soul caused him to look deep within himself. In either case, Jacob was not forced to have painful insights by another human being who was "doing it for his own good."
Each year as I struggle with this vignette, I discover new possibilities. I, therefore, am willing to leave my thinking open-ended again this year. I would encourage those who read this to consider the problems and join the struggle. Discuss with each other and your children questions such as the following:
- How honest should parents be with their children when they disapprove of their behavior?
- Is the answer different if the children are adults?
- Does it hurt a person's self-esteem to make him/her look at his/her faults?
- Should children only get positive reinforcement from parents? Does negative reinforcement ever help?
For further reading
Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Volume One: Genesis, 1990., Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, 1987.
At the time of this writing in 1996, Robert E. Tornberg, RJE, was Principal of Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He is also a Past President of the National Association of Temple Educators.
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