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Vayechi  5779

12/26/2018 12:22:25 PM

Dec26

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman

When I was looking at this parsha last week and trying to decide what to teach for my parsha class - which you are all invited to! - I decided that we would study Yaakov’s last Testament to his brothers, often referred to as Yaakov’s blessings to his children (though they aren’t actually blessings). The language is some of the most obscure and difficult to understand language in the whole Torah, and everyone from the Anchor Bible commentary to Yishayahu Leibowitz write that the language is so difficult to understand that basically no one knows what any of it means. 

This testament occupies the 49th and penultimate chapter in the Torah. Yaakov is nearing death, and so he calls all 12 sons close to him and says listen to what will happen in אחרית הימים - in the future! It’s very clear that he wants them to all hear him together. And he turns to Reuven, his eldest, and he says “Reuven! You were my first born, so strong and mighty.” So far this sounds pretty good. But then he says “but you mounted your father’s couch [referencing the incident with Bilhah after Rachel dies], and so אל תותר, you will go no further.”

And then he turns to Shimon and Levi and says “Shimon and Levi. You were violent, so I want nothing to do with you and I will scatter you amongst the land.”

So so far we’re 0 for 3, and we can only imagine what Yehuda is thinking is going to come his way. Then Yaakov turns to Yehuda, and says - my paraphrasing - “Yehuda! You will always conquer your enemies, and your brothers will bow down to you. The kingship will always come from your line, and you will live with exceeding abundance.”

Yaakov then turns to Zevulun, Yisaschar, Dan, Gad, Asher, and Naftali and offers them each 1-2 lines. He says Zevulun will be a haven for ships, which is strange because his territory ends up being inland, Yisaschar will work, Dan and God will protect, and Asher and Naftali get generic niceties. None of these are negative the way that Reuven Shimon and Levi’s were, but they’re also largely impersonal. 

And then it is time for Yosef. He says “Yosef - other people have tried to take you down (most likely the brothers) but you have stayed strong. And so may you be blessed with blessings even greater than mine. Blessings of the heavens, and blessings of the deep.” He uses the word blessing 6 times.

And then we are left with Binyamin, about whom we know nothing, and he says “Binyamin you are a ravenous wolf. You hunt all day and then at night you distribute the spoils.”

And then the Torah tells us that this is what Yaakov spoke to them, and then he gave them each blessings. 

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I did a lot of reading in preparation for studying this Testament of Yaakov. Because both the language and the references are obscure, the general approach of the commentaries is to see this as Yaakov hinting towards the future. And so they look at this testament, and look at some of the stories of each son’s descendants, and tie that back in. All while aware that no one really knows what the purpose of them is.

But I wasn’t satisfied with this approach, and I felt like there had to be something more. It was bugging me as I thinking through it over and over. And then I was in the car on Tuesday and caught a clip on NPR’s show Here and Now. Robin Young was discussing an interview that she did with a researcher named Kristina Scharp, who is one of the few researchers in the world studying family estrangement, which is defined as a family member choosing to distance themselves from another family member because of an ongoing negative relationship. Robin Young was now conducting a follow up interview with another psychologist. What caught my attention was when Young said that that original segment, which aired a month ago right before Thanksgiving, was one of the most listened to and commented on segments that they have ever aired. People wrote in from all over thanking them for addressing such an under-represented topic and giving voice to something that they had long struggled with and felt like they didn’t even really have the language to talk about. People who had struggled with family relationships, most often parent-child, and felt like they had been tolerating years of emotional turmoil and had no choice but to distance themselves or even remove themselves from that relationship. And I was struck by how hidden this was, and how much people responded to bringing it into the open.

And that got me thinking about family dynamics, and when they’re healthy, and when they can be toxic. Estrangement represents the extreme of something that most if not all people deal with - how to manage family members whose presence can be challenging for us and our sense of self worth. I want to propose reading parashat Vayechi through the lens of painful family dynamics.

Though I initially focused on Yaakov’s testament to his sons, the whole parsha is about how Yaakov engages with his 12 sons as he prepares to die. The testament to his sons is bookended by two scenes. At the beginning of the parsha, when Yaakov gets very sick, Yosef comes with his two sons Efraim and Menashe. Yaakov summons his strength to sit up and tells Yosef that Yosef will be very blessed. Then he says that Efraim and Menashe are like Reuven and Shimon to him, and gives them the blessing of המלאך that we know so well. This is in effect the covenantal blessing - may God protect you, and may your descendants grow and grow. And in the middle Yosef realizes that Yaakov’s right hand is on Efraim’s head, even though he is the youngest, and Yosef tries to switch it and Yaakov says the older one Menashe will do well but it’s Efraim who will be even greater.

This scene hearkens back to when Yaakov himself received these blessings. He got the bechor by providing Esav the stew, and he got the blessing of the first born by tricking Yitzchak. Here there is no trickery, but in many ways it is still similar. Yaakov displaces both his first born son (Reuven), and his first born grandson (Menashe) to favor the younger brother. And he does so without the knowledge of his other sons. When he then gathers them together to deliver the testament we don’t have reason to believe that the brothers know that Yaakov has already given the bechor and blessing to Efraim and Menashe. Perhaps they thought they were gathering together to receive the blessings now, and that perhaps Yaakov had found a way to distribute them amongst all the brothers. But instead he opens his mouth and condemns the first 3, praises the 4th, offers general niceties to the next 6, heaps blessings onto Yosef, and then concludes with Binyamin. In other words, Yaakov here gathers his sons together to blame them for things they did decades prior the past and in so doing fails to offer anything constructive. He’s stuck in the family dynamics that had created the whole mess with Yosef in the first place, and I imagine that this scene makes the brothers uncomfortable.

I wanted to conclude by looking at what happens after the Yaakov’s testament to his sons. After he dies there’s very elaborate public mourning, and they all go together and bury Yaakov in Canaan. Then they all return to Egypt. and seemingly out of nowhere the Torah says that  the brothers see that their father has died, and send a message to Yosef. They say that his father commanded them to ask him to forgive their sin against him. Yosef cries, and then they themselves come before Yosef and offer themselves to him as his servants. They’re clearly terrified that now that Yaakov has died Yosef will punish them for what they had done to him so many decades prior, to the point where they have offered themselves to Yosef as slaves.

This scene actually sounds very familiar. Earlier in the Torah, as Yaakov heads back to Canaan with his large family, he has to cross through Esav’s territory, Seir. He is clearly frightened to confront Esav so many years later, and he sends messengers ahead. And then he himself arrives and refers to himself as Esav’s עבד, his servant. He is still terrified of what happened so many years prior, whereas Esav greets him warmly, and seems to have moved on. But Yaakov can’t see this, and he never joins Esav though he said he would. Instead, he runs away.

And now we have the same scene with the next generation. The brothers are afraid that Yosef still hasn’t forgiven what happened in the past. And not only that, but they say that their father told them to do it. The commentaries debate whether or not Yaakov actually commanded them this before he died, but either way I think the message is clear. With his testament, Yaakov revived the troubling family dynamics that had plagued the brothers earlier in their lives, when they hated Yosef and sold him into slavery. They had been leaving in ostensible peace for 17 years together in Egypt, but that was all undone by Yaakov reverting them back to a dark place they had been in the past. 

But thankfully, there is a much better conclusion to the story of Yosef and his brothers. Instead of running, like Yaakov did, Yosef says - hey, don’t worry about it. It’s in the past. And then the Torah tells us וינחם אותם וידבר על לבם - he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts. Yosef was able to finally fully assure them that things were ok now, that they should appreciate the present, and not be haunted by the past. This is something his father was never able to do. I believe this is why Yaakov heaps blessings on Yosef in his testament, but doesn’t actually describe him as a leader. Yosef was a leader, but in a way that Yaakov couldn’t understand - he was able to forgo the past in order to create family cohesion. He was certainly successful, because from this moment on they are one unit - bnei Yisrael - and not just a group of tribes. 

The Torah has given us a gift with this bittersweet story. Yaakov is human, like all of us. He made mistakes with his family, and was unable to acknowledge and overcome the effect that his choices had made on his family. It is clear that even in 2018 we still struggle to discuss challenging family dynamics, particularly with parents. As we see in this week’s parsha, the Torah grants legitimacy to this struggle, and also reminds us that we should feel empowered to try to overcome it. Shabbat shalom.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779