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Thirty years ago last Monday, my mother died suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly. Later in the service I will say Kaddish for her, just as I lit a yahrzeit candle for her on the evening of New Years Day. Somehow, it seems appropriate that this year, my first year as a rabbi leading a congregation while saying kaddish for my mother, that it falls on this week’s parasha, Veyechi, the very last chapter of the book of Breisheit, or Genesis.
We are at the end of the story of Abraham’s family, our family, our tribe, before we became a nation. We sit with Jacob, with Israel, at his deathbed, for what seems like days. We hear his deathbed instructions and prophecies and blessings for his children. We know that he wants to be buried in Israel, with his parents, grandparents and his wife Leah. We mourn with Joseph, his brothers, and indeed, all of Egypt. And then we quietly and quickly bury Joseph himself, noting that when we leave Egypt we will need to take his bones with us.
Jacob’s dying unfolds through a series of scenes that are beautiful and terrible, that replay old stories, that remind us of the past, and yet, look toward the future. Almost every word is packed with meanings beyond the simple story.
Jacob is the only patriarch to be surrounded by all of his sons as he dies. He is the only patriarch, despite his challenges as a parent, to have each son remain a believing, practicing Jew. He is the only patriarch to see his grandchildren.
And these grandchildren are astonishing in their own right. Let’s quickly review the siblings in the Torah: Cain and Abel: murder. Ishmael and Isaac: one banished. Rachel and Leah: sibling rivalry. Jacob and Esau: threatened murder, theft of the patriarchal blessing. Joseph and his brothers: hatred, threatened murder, selling into slavery. While Esau and Jacob, and the twelve sons of Jacob reconciled, and Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury their father, none of these were particularly healthy relationships. Until we meet Menashe and Ephraim. We don’t know much about these sons of Joseph and Asenat. But we do know they overcame the family curse and were companions and friends. And even better, whereas Isaac seemed to have only one blessing to give, Jacob had one for each child.
Whether Jacob’s blessings were indeed blessings has been a matter of debate for centuries. Some were predictions. And several… well, to reach the term “blessing” we really have to explore and expand the concept.
Jacob knows each of his children very well: their goodness, their rage, their willingness to accept what they shouldn’t, their violence, their growth. And at this moment, before he dies, he tells each of them what he knows. Some of it isn’t pretty, by any means. Later in the Torah, the Holiness Code will command us in quick succession not to hate our brothers in our hearts and to be sure to rebuke our neighbor. Because of the proximity of the two statements, we can find a connection.
First, what we hate in others is often a reflection of what we don’t want to look at in ourselves. We deflect it onto someone else… But it is especially the rebuke part I want to think about today. What Jacob blessed Reuben, Shimon and Levi with was serious rebuke– some might not see it so much as a blessing: he noted their besetting sins, their behaviors that had caused problems for Jacob and the family, that had harmed others, indeed led to massacres and deep pain. This was probably not the sort of message they were looking for at that moment. But imagine how powerful it must have been: on one hand, Dad is dying, but shows incredible insight. On another hand, the words shoot like arrows, hitting twelve bull’s eyes. He knows each of them, knows their souls, their strengths. What is it like to hear your faults spoken aloud, the places where you know you need to change but where you can’t bear to look yourself? Would it bring you up short? Would you learn from it, or experience such shame that you couldn’t face it?
A part of me sympathizes with Reuben, Shimon and Levi. But another part of me thinks, they needed to hear it, take responsibility for their actions and grow. This was Jacob’s last chance to tell them the truth, the last chance help them turn, to make a break from the old behavior. We are told that if we don’t rebuke bad behavior, don’t stop it, it is as though we are co-conspirators. Jacob was doing what he thought he needed to.
And yet, the rabbis also teach us that rebuke needs to be done well. Rabbi Tarfon, a great sage of the Mishnah, sadly observed, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is fit to rebuke others.” No one in Rabbi Tarfon’s time was exempt from the very faults they would point out in others — hardly role models capable of rebuking their neighbors with disinterest. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah remarked, “I swear by the Temple service, I doubt if there is anyone in this generation who is able to receive rebuke.” Rabbi Eleazar observed that people in his time could not accept criticism as an act of love. Instead of listening with an open heart to a caring person describe their behavior and then trying to change, the object of the rebuke would become defensive. Sound familiar?
As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there really is nothing new under the sun. But each week, when we revisit these familiar stories, we have the opportunity to look and see how they touch us this time. Can we hear our loved ones give us feedback to help us grow? Can we give feedback in an effective way, whether it is tender or pulls the person up short, as long as it doesn’t embarrass them in public?
That part of me that thinks that Reuben, Shimon and Levi need to take responsibility for their actions, need to hear the truth and grow from it is the part that learned that lesson from my mother. We have to own our actions. While she didn’t give me explicit deathbed instructions or blessings, she taught me throughout our too few years together: to love books, to love social justice, to pay attention; so much of what and who I am today is because she was my mother.
Vayechi reminds us that we have up until the end to share with those we love, those whose souls we know intimately. But we don’t have to wait until then: we can meet them at any time. Let our children, our parents, our loved ones know where they have gone astray, where they shine and, most important, that we love them.