01 January 2010


ויחי: Genesis 47.28-50.26

For the longest time I was stuck on the trickery of Jacob and often saw his decision to confer blessing on Ephraim and Menashe as yet another example of his clever ways. Teaching Joseph a crucial lesson about the new Jewish tradition of subverting the rights of the first-born was resonant enough for me.

But as I watch families and friends inside the shul and beyond--especially those who are intermarried--make decisions about raising their children (or grandchildren) as Jewish, the Jacob story at the end of his life comes into some new and revealing light.

The Sages make alot of the symmetry of Jacob residing in Egypt for 17 years--the exact number of years that Joseph was when he began to dream--and open this week's parsha talking about Jacob's 17 years in Egypt as relatively peaceful compared to the tumultuous and epic dimensions of his life prior to this last chapter. Samson Raphael Hirsch points out this distinction, arguing that the years prior to Jacob's years in Egypt were ones in which he earned his honors, as it were, with the struggles and sufferings of those days. Egypt, though an exilic existence, came to symbolize the quietude of his life's concluding chapter. The notion of not being in the fight after a lifetime of conflict must have been enormously appealing. It likely gave him great perspective as well.

He reveals this perspective to Joseph, his second youngest son but the first born to his beloved Rachel, moments before he applies one more trick--that of giving Ephraim, younger than Menashe, the preferred blessing. "I had not thought it possible that I would see your face and now God has let me see even your seed." The Hebrew term used here to denote possibility is לא פללתי and echoes for us the root word used to denote prayer:תפילה

פלל we understand to mean self-judgement, but many point out that the term is really about what Hirsch says is "to inject a spiritual element into thoughts or conditions, infuse them with an idea, a truth, a principle, and thereby integrate and unify them."

Joseph does this when he reveals himself to his brothers in last week's parsha--"do not be troubled nor let it be disturbing in your sight that you sold me here, for God sent me ahead of you to preserve life." Joseph is able to sublimate his own ego to the larger narrative of the family and that sublimation is his service to God. There is a beautiful symmetry to the father's admission to the son with Jacob's words before blessing Ephraim and Menashe, "I had not thought it possible that I would see your face and now God has let me see even your seed." Both father and son, it seems to me, are admitting their own humbling gestures toward one another for the sake of the family.

It is what makes Jacob's blessing of Ephraim and Menashe a very poignant one. Less a trick than an ability to see character, Jacob reverses the order, yes, in part, to continue the Jewish tradition of subverting primogeniture; but ultimately as a statement of what must be for the family. If one were to contemporize this episode, Jacob would be a proud patriarchal grandfather conferring blessing on his patrilineally descended grandsons who are not halachically Jewish. He conveys Jewish tradition by not only blessing but through a kind of gesture of continuity--"this is how we do it, son. This is how we bless the kids. And this is what that blessing means." One can imagine that Joseph had never blessed his own children as Jews before--afterall, they were as Egyptian as their father. But with the grandfather now in Egypt with them, preparing the final moments of his life and just having conveyed the promise from his son to bury him not in Egypt but back in the Land of Canaan, Jacob could adapt his definition of family to embrace his son and his grandchildren with one blessing.

The promise of a proper burial likely earned that trust between Jacob the father and Joseph the son. A sense, I believe, that Jacob felt once he was guaranteed a burial in the family plot and an open admission from his most assimilated of children that Joseph himself would not only see to the burial but would ensure that generations after each of them, future seed would remember that burial place.

It never ceases to amaze me how well Jews utilize death for the sake of the promise and regeneration of our peoplehood.

Being back in Wisconsin last week reminded me of a critical moment in my own identity development, when I was in fourth grade, and my grandfather died. I can recall nearly every aspect of that day--seeing my father cry for the first time at the funeral home, the trip to the cemetery, the burial, and shiva back at their apartment. I remember the voices, the food, even my great-aunt's glasses. And the following autumn, accompanying my dad and grandma to shul so she could say kaddish, I remember following my dad's finger along the page of the siddur as he showed me the letters that formed the words that made the prayer. It would be some time before I'd teach myself those letters and learn the language of our people (a journey of learning initiated in large part by my father's subsequent death) but the blessing of covenant had already been conveyed.

Hirsch's language here about the linguistic root of the Hebrew word, פלל bears repeating: "To inject a spiritual element into thoughts or conditions, infuse them with an idea, a truth, a principle, and thereby integrate and unify them."

This integration bears its own fruit.

When Jacob asks Joseph to bury him in the Land of Canaan, he says, "Deal with me in lovingkindness and truth--חסד ואמת.

Essentialist integration of ideas.

"All the paths of the Eternal are lovingkindness and truth to such as keep His covenant and testimonies," wrote the Psalmist. Who then continued, "His soul shall abide in prosperity during the night of the grave, and his seed shall inherit the earth."

Works for me.

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