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Vayechi; Jacob’s Legacy as Yisrael

This morning’s parasha, Vayechi, concludes the book of Genesis.  In this one parasha, all of the drama, all of the dysfunction and the too-real family dynamics of Sefer Breisheet come to a close.  Jacob dies, and then Joseph dies, and we can assume that all of Joseph’s brothers die too, because in next week’s portion which begins of the book of Exodus, we will learn that several hundred years have passed and that a new king, who does not know Joseph and the contributions he made, has come to rule over Egypt.

As much as Parashat Vayechi ends the Joseph narrative which takes up a good chunk of Genesis, much of the parsha is actually focused on Jacob.  In this Torah portion, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, with the blessing that we still use today, and then he gathers his sons to bless them as well.  Well, not bless exactly, rather Jacob shares his observations and tells them some hard truths about themselves.

These ‘blessings’ or ‘truth-tellings’ are controversial – some commentators praise Jacob for seeing each of his sons for who he really is and for treating them as individuals rather than as a group.  Other commentators are not as generous and wonder why Jacob seems disgruntled even at the very end of his life, even after miraculously having been reunited with Joseph and experiencing 17 years of shalom bayit (peace in the home). Surely after his experience with his own father, Jacob must know that words matter, and that words uttered on a deathbed will not be taken lightly or easily forgotten. 

Why then, does Jacob feel the need to remind Reuben that he should not have slept with his father’s concubine?  Does Jacob really need to call Joseph a wild ass of a man?  Especially since Joseph has clearly learned to exert self-control with regard to his brothers.  Never mind that it was his regimented action plan that enabled him to run Egypt.  And yet, Jacob shares – overshares his insights with each one of his sons.  After he does, Jacob makes it clear that he wishes to be buried in the land of Israel in Me’arat HaMachpelah with his parents and grandparents, and his wife Leah (although interestingly not with his beloved Rachel).  And then, Jacob dies. 

Jacob has the type of death we pray for – he is old – 147.  He is at home, surrounded by his family.  He has said what he needed to say – so he has closure, and then, he lies back and takes his final breath.  It is quite beautiful.  Genesis 49:33 says, “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

There is a note in Humash Etz Hayyim that comments on Joseph drawing his feet into the bed, which says, “Now, after many years, Jacob can finally stop wandering and struggling.”  In other words, after a lifetime of movement – running away from home, living with his uncle Lavan, running away from Lavan, settling in Canaan, moving to Egypt – and after a lifetime of struggle – with his family of origin, with the family he creates, with the man-angel, with his move to Egypt, Jacob can finally rest in peace.

What’s interesting is that the note in our humash seems to be in sharp contrast with the 13th-14th century Spanish commentator Rabbeinu Bachya, who writes about the latter half of the same verse from the Torah, “He expired and was gathered to his people.”   Rabbeinu Bachya comments, “The word מיתה (death) is not mentioned in connection with Jacob. This prompted our sages of the Talmud, in Masechet Ta’anit, to say: ‘our patriarch Jacob never died.’  We see from the reports of the Torah here that he was treated as if dead, i.e. embalmed, buried, etc., surely this is evidence that he did die!”

Rabbeinu Bachya continues, “We must therefore understand the statement of our sages who said ‘he did not die,’ to mean that Jacob’s soul remained hovering over his body due to the degree of holiness he had attained. Whereas other righteous people who did not attain the level of holiness that Jacob attained are forced to return their souls to celestial regions, and once they have returned there they do not return to earth, Jacob’s soul was in a constant state of commuting between heaven and earth.”

So…, only real tzaddikim attain this level of holiness, but I’ll be honest, commuting between heaven and earth sounds exhausting.  It is the opposite of ceasing to wander, as Jacob’s soul is in a perpetual state of movement. 

We can also wonder:  is Jacob really so righteous?  No doubt he is shrewd.  No doubt he has a special relationship with God, but is he a tzadik?  Does he merit having his soul move between heaven and earth?  Jacob is deeply, deeply flawed, and we witness this even at the very end of his life, when he seems a bit self-absorbed – he is more concerned with what he feels he needs to say rather than how his children will hear it.  

But this is what makes Jacob fascinating.  It is because we get to know him and his flaws. Throughout much of the book of Genesis, we witness his evolution, which is not linear.  Throughout his story, we encounter his competing attributes – the Torah introduces us to Jacob by saying that he is mild-mannered but we quickly learn that he is clever and unafraid of making a deal.  Jacob can be sly but he also has a strong work ethic. Sometimes he is outspoken but sometimes he remains silent when we wish he would speak out, like after his daughter Dina is raped.  Sometimes he speaks the words he himself needs to hear, rather than considering what others might need, like in our parasha this morning.  He is loving but he also allows himself to be played.  He plays favorites with his children even though he knows first-hand the damage it can do.  He can be content and he also experiences periods of depression.  He has the capacity for intense moments of connection with God. 

Jacob is fascinating because he is human.  He lives life in all of its messiness and complications and beauty and triumphs.  Jacob is so real that perhaps we find a bit of ourselves in him.

As people, we grapple with conflicting or competing attributes and values.  Sometimes we are able to live up to the best in ourselves, and other times we fall short, even when we know what we are doing or saying is wrong. We have an endless capacity for love, but sometimes we do not pay enough attention to our relationships.  We have the ability to be spiritual, but sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to access what we keep deep in our hearts.   Maybe we make deals, maybe we speak when we shouldn’t or we keep silent when we ought to speak.  Hopefully, we learn throughout our lives how to live our true values.   

Rabbeinu Bachya says that Jacob’s soul hovers above his body while he commutes between heaven and earth, because he is a tzaddik.  But what if it’s because Jacob is human?  What if it’s because Jacob is Yisrael?  What if it is because he has the temerity to keep going?

We too are Yisrael – we are God-wrestlers, wanderers, strugglers, inheritors of Jacob’s humanness.  In a way, we are part of Jacob’s soul.  As humans, we are flawed and, we also experience moments of greatness – of love, of spiritual connection, of blessing, of acceptance.  Throughout his life, Jacob falls down and gets back up again – even when he is hurt, even when he is injured.  This is also part of what it means to be Yisrael – we have inherited a legacy of strength and resilience.  As a Jewish People, we fall down and against the odds we manage to get back up again.  As individuals, we are no more perfect than Jacob is, but we continue to strive; we continue to move forward, learning as we fall down and learning as we pick ourselves back up again. 

It is Jacob’s legacy of resilience that I plan to hold close as we begin this new year of 2021.  We are in the middle of a struggle like no other.  We might be examining our values differently these days; we might be questioning what is happening around us and throughout the world.  We might be wrestling with God as we continue to grope for answers.  And at the same time, we might be discovering beauty we otherwise would not have encountered; we might find ourselves filled with gratitude for simple things – small blessings; we might be filled with hope as vaccines begin to make their way into people we know and love.  This, too, is what it means to be Yisrael.  We can hold competing values and emotions, we can have down days and up days, we can struggle and strive, because like Jacob, we are bold enough to keep going.  We can do this because we are resilient.

I wish you a Shabbat Shalom and happy, healthy, safe New Year.