February 25, 2020

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.”