Torah portion: Securing a Jewish legacy


What will be our legacy? Every generation asks itself this question. It’s part of aging and looking to bridge past and future. Legacy gives us a sense that our life is worthwhile. It gives us the basis to believe that all our struggles and decisions in life can be framed in a way that can live on after us. It gives us a chance at immortality.

The book of Genesis ends with a meditation on legacy. We find the children of Jacob living quite well under Pharaoh’s rule. As Jacob becomes conscious of his own impending death, he gathers together his family to share with them words of blessing. He wants to set his affairs in order — to shape his legacy — for each of his children. He calls them forth and musters what prophetic strength he has, saying,

“Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” (Genesis 49:1).

Jacob’s worries are no different than our own. Will our children believe what we believe? Will they cherish the same values that we do? Will they forget our struggles?

We see in Jacob the very fear that drives much of the Jewish community today around questions of prosperity, continuity and fidelity. The children of Jacob are not starving as they did before, but they are not yet living up to God’s promise and covenant struck with Abraham.

They are in exile from the land of Canaan, they have Egyptian wives and children — especially Joseph, who has two Egyptian sons who do not know their grandfather (Genesis 48:8).

Moreover, Jacob, like every parent at the end of his or her life, cannot prescribe a living reality of which he or she is not a part. The Talmud echoes this idea: “Jacob wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons but the Shekhinah [God’s presence] departed from him.”

Being gripped by the insecurity of his own mortality and the fear of the possibility of a failed legacy, his divine vision becomes clouded. He cannot truly see into the future.

Jacob’s fears are our fears. Will my children marry within the faith? Will they raise Jewish children? Will they love Israel the way I love Israel? Will they get along with each other? The many sociological studies that ask these questions give us no confidence in our legacy.

They scare us. Like Jacob, our vision is clouded, our future uncertain. Ultimately we ask ourselves: How would we, even if it were possible, shape a Jewish future of which we will have no part?

The question of Jewish legacy is one that takes hold in every generation, and here too the Torah gives us an answer. Let’s turn from the perspective of Jacob to that of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. These two Egyptian-born kids have an Egyptian mother and a grandfather who is the priest of Egypt (Genesis 46:20). Their names point towards the discontinuity of their heritage in both memory (Manasseh, meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home”) and geography (Ephraim, meaning God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction) (Genesis 41:51-52). Their experience of Judaism is colored entirely by their father’s time in Pharaoh’s palace. Their first language is not Hebrew. They are assimilated into a different culture with a different spiritual language. They have a different orientation to life, and a different outlook on what the future holds.

Menasseh and Ephraim are familiar to us. They represent those in our families who carry a very different attitude about life — those who only feel “Jew-ish,” or whose experience of Judaism is to feel marginalized from the greater Jewish family. They are the embodiment of our Jewish fear.

Here they stand with their father before the Old Guard with whom they have no relationship. There is tension and uncertainty between the parties. That is when the Torah, as it always does, shows us the way forward.

Jacob takes these estranged boys into his bosom, and says, “Now, your two sons … shall be mine.” (Genesis 48:5). Jacob reaches out to embrace Menasseh and Ephraim as his own children. He makes room for them inside the tradition. He makes room for their differences. He makes room for their sense of the future. Jacob understands that children should not live only for their parents. Judaism is bigger than that. The covenant is bigger than that.

We must embrace our Menassehs and our Ephraims. Our legacy as Jews is to move beyond our fear, to make room for new ideas, all the while understanding the need to make our Jewish lives feel indigenous to our historical psyche. Jacob shows us that the elasticity within our tradition is what makes Judaism a vibrant, life-giving and meaningful path.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on this truth when he wrote, “The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival of a particular people but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples.”

The last gift of Jacob, for whom our nation is named, is the moral assertion that God’s blessings are always expansive. We bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menasseh, bringing to the center of Jewish life those who have not historically felt part of our community. Ultimately, our legacy will be secured as the children of Jacob when we follow our father’s advice to let our hands rest on the heads on those who live on the outside, and make them our own.

Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya, and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

Unloading the emotional U-Haul: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


A funeral director once said, “In all the funerals I’ve attended, I have yet to see a hearse with a U-Haul trailer attached.” But while it’s true that “you can’t take it with you,”meaning material possessions, I’m not so sure about emotional possessions. How many of us have walked behind a casket where lay the body of a relative or friend with whom we were still talking? Or, wrenchingly, with whom we never had the conversation we meant to have?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi — “And he lived” — ironically starts out with one of the longest death scenes in Torah, as the 147-year-old Jacob prepares to die. The cryptic blessings he gives to his 12 sons must have left them with as many unanswered questions as they leave us.

Is “blessing” even the right word for what Jacob says to each son? Jacob begins by saying, “I will tell you what will come to you in the end of days” (Genesis 49:1), and then offers each son words that seem part blessing, part fortune-cookie fortune, and part description of what each son has done or is like — their nature or what animal they resemble (“Judah is a lion cub”). Truly poetic, the passage ends:

“All these are the tribes of Israel — twelve — and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them; each one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28)
“Each according to his blessing.” Certainly, each son is different from the others, and finally here, if not all along during their shared long lives, Jacob acknowledges that he sees each one differently.

But what happens when a conversation — a blessing — is one-sided, like these from Jacob to his sons? “I will tell you what will come to you.” Be it unrelenting expectation or its opposite — chronic disappointment — what room is there for growth or change once their father’s “blessing” is set down for eternity? The blessings are likely to be mixed — just consider the emotional baggage those sons must have carried when they returned from burying a manipulative father who played favorites.

Perhaps, like us, our sages were wary of the constriction of such specific blessings, for in recent centuries the tradition derived from this Torah portion relies on an earlier moment in Vayechi when Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons. The Jewish tradition of blessing our sons as Shabbat begins each Friday night recalls these words of Jacob: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh” (Genesis 48:20).

At our congregation on Friday nights, we offer a blessing for family, and we include in it the blessing of children by contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk: “Be who you are, and may you be blessed in all that you are.” Falk explained her choice to respond to — but ultimately leave behind — the traditional blessing for sons by saying:

“Why Ephraim and Menasheh, one cannot help but wonder — indeed, why any particular ancestors at all? … Why should we wish for a child to be anything other than her or his best self? … Yet letting a child be herself, himself — letting go of expectations that do not emerge from the reality of who the child is — is one of the hardest lessons parents have to learn.” Then she adds a hope for parents that in the framework of the onset of the Sabbath, a time in which “we let go of strivings and take note of the world’s abiding gifts,” that “we pay special attention to the children in our midst, thankful for their being, accepting of who they are, hopeful that they will blossom into their best selves” (Falk, “The Book of Blessings,” p. 450-51).

On the way to unloading the emotional U-Haul, our congregational prayer for family also adds a few hopes for family members in general, whatever ages, however we came to call them family: “May we reach out to them and hold them; may we say the words we need to say to one another; may we feel the love we have for them, and they for us. Dear God, in whatever way it comes into our lives, we give thanks for the blessing of family.”

And this week, as we complete this year’s reading of the Book of Genesis, we add another traditional blessing: khazak, khazak, v’nitkhazek, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.”

Curses and Blessings: Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)


“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons. These are the closing moments of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), and of all the portions in Bereshit, none is more poetic and none more opaque than Vayechi.

“And Israel’s dying days came closer,” says the text, and Jacob, perhaps propelled by this awareness, seems to muster all his creative energies and pours forth a series of perplexing blessings and curses that haunt our collective imaginations until this very day. Perhaps Jacob recognizes that this is his last chance to breathe some fire into this world, to leave his mark; to make the ascending angels of his youth take notice one last time of the dying dreamer they had visited two lifetimes ago at the bottom of the ladder.

What does Jacob mean by his stream-of-consciousness outpouring of poetic prophecy? From whence the passion and the decisiveness that had eluded him his entire life? How much do Jacob’s words to his sons affect us today? What is the difference between a blessing and a curse?

One could spend years poring over Jacob’s “blessings.” I’d like to touch on two of them.

The first blessing is personal: It is the blessing received by my namesake. “Dan Yaddin Amo. …” (“And Dan shall judge his people. …”) There are names one receives at birth that serve as guides, as gentle guardians throughout one’s life; names like Noam, pleasantness, or Zohar, radiant brilliance. Dan’s name is more a burden than a guide, more a hurdle than a gift. The name literally means “judgmental,” and it is given as a command: Go out and judge; be true to your name.

Samson, the most famous Danite, would rather do anything but. He spends his entire career running away from his vocation. He becomes Nad, a wanderer, instead of Dan, a judge. His ending, while spectacular, is not a good one, and it teaches us that one can no more escape one’s essence than a nightingale can escape its sweet voice. I have struggled with my name and its dangerous attributes my entire life. I consider my name a great blessing precisely for the warning it carries with it: Judge, when and if you must, but do so with mercy and compassion. Be careful, be kind, be sweet.

The second blessing I’d like to visit is Levi’s. The power of the words Jacob visits upon Levi is stunning. The “blessing,” it would appear, is really a curse. Levi, along with his brother, Shimon, is berated for the murderous rampage the brothers embarked upon after the rape of their sister, Dina.

Jacob’s words are harsh and unforgiving. He appears to doom Levi to the life of an eternal outsider. He and his descendants are to be scattered among the children of Israel.

Later on, after the Exodus from Egypt, the Levites are chosen by God to be eternal servants in the house of the Lord. Where’s the curse? Why the Levites, of all tribes? The action God takes is not unlike the wise teacher who picks on the most troubled child in class to be the teacher’s aid; to sit closer to the teacher than any other child in class. It is neither a reward nor a punishment. It is the exact tikkun (repair) that child requires. The most violent of tribes is chosen for holy work precisely because it is the tribe that needs holiness more than any other. The Levites are still scattered, landless, outsiders, but now they are doing so for the sake of holiness. Perhaps, those who are in service of God, those whose lives are spent in religious leadership, to this very day, are doing so because they are the ones who are most in need of it.

“Gather, assemble yourselves and let me tell you what will become of you in the end of days,” Jacob says to his sons, and his words to them are the blueprint of the Jewish people’s destiny. They are the markers of our lives: personally, according to our Hebrew names; collectively, according to the tribes of our ancestors. Family history does matter. Names matter. Words matter. To us, as Jews, words are the DNA of our history, our culture, our souls. Jacob’s words are curses embedded in blessings and blessings embedded in curses, and whether they serve us for good or for bad, for holiness or profanity, is still, and always will be, entirely up to each one of us.

Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! Be strong! Be strong! And we shall be strengthened!

Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

Final lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral)
contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, “Well, maybe you’ll do.” She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah, and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room, and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, “What’s that in your hand?” I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath, and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, “I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one.”

He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, “I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently.”

I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, “This is your final goal — help us live better lives.”

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, “You’ve got some work cut out for you here.”

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life, and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is like a book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Jan. 9, 2004.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Final Lesson


In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.


Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

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