Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
This week the book of Genesis comes to its end, and along with it the story of the mamas and the papas (the matriarchs and patriarchs). VaYechi is perhaps one of the most intimate and difficult portions in Genesis because the text places us right in the room with Jacob as he says goodbye to his family from his deathbed. Throughout Genesis, as each generation of our family neared death the father would bestow a blessing on his eldest son – or rather the one who would be the next bearer of the Covenantal Promise between God and Israel. Abraham blessed Isaac, but not Ishmael. Isaac blessed Jacob, but not Esau. In VaYechi, Jacob breaks with tradition, and offers blessings not only to every one of his sons, but also to two of his grandsons. There will no longer be a single leader of the family. Each of them now will carry the responsibility of maintaining the covenant. Even more, Jacob offers personalized blessings in poetic form, which reflect the character, life path and future of each individual son:
"Asher’s bread shall be rich, and he shall bring forth kingly dishes. Naphtali, a hind set loose who brings forth lovely fawns." [Gen. 49:20-21]
Yet, as Jacob speaks each blessing, his words are not always kind:
“Issachar, a big boned donkey, crouched amidst hearths. He saw that the homestead was goodly, that the land was delightful, and he put his shoulder to the load, became a toiling serf.” [Gen. 49:14-15]
“Simeon and Levi, the brothers – weapons of outrage their trade. In their council let me never set foot, their assembly my presence shun. For in their fury they slaughtered men, at their pleasure they tore down ramparts. Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their wrath so remorseless! I will divide them in Jacob, disperse them in Israel.” [Gen. 49:5-7]c
How are thecse blessings? What is Jacob’s purpose here?
Part of the answer may come from a modern science fiction masterpiece called “Speaker of the Dead.” The author, Orsen Scott Card, imagines Speakers as people who speak the unvarnished truth of a person’s life after they have died. This is quite different from a eulogy. The rabbis teach that while we should never lie in a eulogy, we should edit what we say to only share the good. A Speaker shares everything, especially the most broken and dysfunctional aspects of a person’s life; and connects the dysfunction to the community as a whole. At a Speaking everyone understands how they contributed to the good and the ugly in the life now lost. In the book, this was an exquisitely painful and healing process, which forced everyone to confront the truth of their lives, and in the process give them the opportunity to change.
In some ways, I think that Jacob, on his deathbed is functioning as a ‘Speaker of the Living.’ Jacob shares the unvarnished truth about each son’s character and path to date – forcing them to confront the reality of their choices and actions. He phrases these blessings as poetic prophecies, but we already know that in Torah and Judaism the future is never predetermined: we can change the future with the choices we make today.
Jacob is serving as a sharp and painful mirror to his sons, in effect saying: this is the truth who each of you has become, but is this who you really want to be? If the answer is yes, then wonderful, this is what your future holds. If the answer is no, then you must make better choices.
They may be painful to read, and even more painful to receive, but perhaps these were blessings after all. At the end of his life, with the wisdom that only comes from years of struggle and suffering, Jacob offered his sons the most beautiful and meaningful blessing of all: the truth about the past and what the future will hold if we choose to stay the same.
 I wish that Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, was also included – but that is a different story, for another commentary.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras