With Parashat Vayechi, we come to the end of the Book of B’raishit; in some ways, the most exasperating and incomprehensible of the five books of the Bible. Filled with miracles and dysfunctional behavior by larger-than-life characters, it can be a struggle to find ways to relate to the stories therein.
I remember one trenchant moment when my daughter Rebecca was 7 or 8 years old. She had just learned about Joseph’s brothers presenting Jacob with Joseph’s blood-soaked coat and she said of the deception: “Their father must have been very sad.” And I thought about that, for a long time. What kind of people were these, who could condemn their brother to a life of slavery and, likely, an early death; who could deceive their father for 22 years and thrust upon him the burden of being a parent who has outlived his child? How am I to reconcile that the Jewish people emanated from this twisted crew of bad actors and enablers, with the belief that God chose us to be a light unto the nations?
But the answers to those questions exceed the scope of this week’s parsha poem, which is entitled Reading Jacob’s Dying Words to His Children, I Consider What My Dying Words to My Children Might Be. As background, near the end of Parashat Vayechi, we find the patriarch Jacob on his death-bed and he calls his sons together in order to impart his blessings to them. I use the term blessing in the broadest sense because in the case of almost every son, Jacob’s words sound like admonishments. And, incredibly, after each son receives his blessing and Jacob dies, only Joseph seems affected. How can it be that none of the rest of them have tears to shed for their father; who also happens to be (ostensibly) one of the greatest men in history?
But when I read Jacob’s words carefully, the source of the emotional distance between father and sons becomes obvious to me. Jacob never tells his sons that he loves them. He never says he’s proud of them. He exhibits no discernible affection for them. And, it appears they mean nothing to him, except inasmuch as they are genetic links in what is to become the Jewish historical chain.
As a Jew, I guess I can appreciate the importance of Jacob’s final task in the world; that is, to exhort his heirs to fulfill their historical responsibilities. And, his dying request to be taken out of Egypt and buried in the Land of Israel, a grand, disruptive and expensive enterprise, involving much work and planning, is significant in that it shows the connection of the Jewish people to the land that God has promised to us. Jacob and his sons are important actors on the world’s stage. To appreciate them, to the fullest extent, perhaps, we need to see them through a gauzy lens.
Nonetheless, I can’t suppress my distaste for the story and all involved. And, while such harsh judgment suggests that I think I’m a better father than Jacob. I’ll only go so far as saying, I’m a different type of father. As for my four children, they exhibit none of the fratricidal tendencies of Joseph’s brothers. Occasionally, there have been moments of genuine tension in our house among the sibs, over perceived and real slights, but I’ve never felt the need to hide sharp instruments from them. Does that make Jessie, Matt, Rebecca and Joshua superior to the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel? Well, that’s really for others to say.
Reading Jacob’s Dying Words to His Children, I Consider What My Dying Words to My Children Might Be
First, practical matters: Bury me anywhere.
Spend as little as possible. Schedule the
service early or late so that no one misses
a full day’s work. And, somehow, if pieces of
this beat-up body can help another living soul,
sign the forms and let the surgeons sharpen
their scalpels. No rabbi need speak at my
gravesite, especially if it is raining or he is boring.
No monument is necessary but, if there must
be a stone, let it lay flat to the ground and read:
Here lies a son, a husband, a father, a poet.
Next, some advice. Sit shiva. Or don’t sit shiva.
Say kaddish. Or don’t say kaddish. If it helps you heal,
go to a midnight movie or see a Broadway show.
Turn up the volume and join The Proclaimers, singing:
“I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more,
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to
fall down at your door,” the liveliest lyrics I know.
And if you’re still sad, steal yourself from the
well-meaning mourners and uncover a bathroom
mirror. With a glance, you’ll see: I’m still with you.
And, finally, a blessing, stolen from a writer far better
than I: “Be strong and courageous.” Because, you draw
strength from each other. You draw courage from each
other. You are mortise and tenon to each other. You are
bound to each other. Remember to talk to each other,
share secrets and jokes and dreams with each other.
Rejoice with each other. Eat with each other. Break the
middle matzah with each other. Teach each other. Be kind
to each other. Reminisce with each other. Fix the world with
each other. Thank God, every day, that you have each other.
Especially today, my loves, when you mourn with each other.