Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Now that the chanukkiyot are packed away, the candlewax has been scraped from window sills, the dinners, the Season’s post cards, the gift wrappings, champagne corks and fireworks are behind us, what we have left to reflect on are not only our expanded waistlines but the family relationships we built during the winter Holiday Season.
There’s a certain greyness to early January. The festivities have died down and this could be a time of quite reflection, of acknowledging our mortality in deep winter, alongside icy roads and bare branches. Reflecting on endings and death, even of a cyclical nature, allows us to shape our own response to it. It’s OK, I suppose, to embrace the darkness a little, to acknowledge the coldness in our bones and to feel the tilt of the world towards decay. The question then is how we relate to these relationships around us.
Many of us have spent time with family (and friends) in various guises and to varying degrees. Just like during a Pesach Seder, the holidays can be a bit of a pressure-cooker: often something wonderful comes out but sometimes it can get a little intense. It is comforting to know that our tradition is very good at helping us navigating this intensity: the thoughts and fears of death and finality, the hopes and expectations of new beginnings and emotions of binding together families.
Parashat Vayechi brings all these elements together in a moving narrative of Jacob’s and Joseph’s death. The Joseph cycle represents a fulcrum, a transition, from the old into the new, not unlike winter festivals. We leave the stories of an individual family behind as we look forward to the Book of Shemot, Exodus, where we encounter the stories of a nation. Joseph is the agent that binds these different elements together: his actions set the scene that will not only lead to enslavement but also to redemption. It is through Joseph’s descent into Egypt that we actually sow the seeds of Revelation, where Torah is given in the redemptive emptiness of the wilderness. But Joseph and Jacob are much more than archetypes; they are portraits of living, breathing people wrapped up in complex relationships. These relationships find resolution in these last chapters of B’reishit, Genesis. Even Joseph dies in the end.
If anything, this week’s Torah reading can tell us much about living well and dying well. If there’s an overarching theme in Vayechi, it’s the dignified ability to manage our responses and wrestle sacred moments out of existential encounters. The stuff of living and loving is hard, but with the ancient insights of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs we might get a notion of what to do and what not to do (just as important!)
At the beginning of the parashah, we receive a tally of Jacob’s years: he’s 147 years old of which he spent the last 17 years in Egypt. This mundane factoid is followed by a simple yet profound phrase: ‘Vayik’revu yemei Yisrael lamut vayikra livno l’Yosef…’ ‘And the days of Israel drew near death and he called on his son, to Joseph.’ (Gen. 47:29).
What’s striking about this phrase is that we have a shift in name: Jacob becomes Israel again, as if he reaches into his better self. The nearness of death isn’t easy for him – how could we expect it to be? – but it is strangely uplifting in the closure and healing it can offer him. He’s prepared and he knows what he wants to do. He orally composes his will and bequeaths his blessing and wisdom on his adult children. (And ‘blessing’ doesn’t only refer to pleasantries; it can also mean a stark accounting of honest truths we need to hear). The next chapters, Chapter 48 and 49, are filled with the blessings for his progeny as Israel reflects on his life’s achievements, failures, loves and losses. He secures his legacy through Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, giving rise to the custom to bless our sons at the Sabbath table, with the wish to be like the first sibling pair in Torah who weren’t torn apart by conflict. (Daughters are equally blessed with the invocation of the Matriarchs).
Strangely though, the Torah doesn’t tell us Jacob is actually (mortally) ill until verse 48:1: ‘acher hadevarim ha’eleh vayomer l’Yosef, hineh avicha choleh’ – ‘and it was after these things that one said to Joseph, behold your father is ill.’ This suggests that Jacob had the insight to order his affairs before it was too late. He wasn’t blasé in assuming that he’d have ‘time’. Rather, he had the state of mind to heal the relationships with his children at a time he could still enjoy them and bless them. The responses of his sons are equally insightful. When Joseph hears of his father’s condition, he came – but not just him. He brought his sons. The family came together as one. Jacob gives final instructions for his burial and dies. Joseph is left bereft, weeping and kissing his father. He makes honourable preparations for his father’s remains, as per Egyptian custom, and seeks permission from Pharaoh to take what we would call ‘compassionate leave’.
The chapter ends with supreme healing: old grudges are forgotten and the brothers are reconciled. With the maturity of hindsight, Joseph assuages his brothers not to fear him as he promises to provide for them and their children. Taking the God’s eye perspective, Joseph realises that healing embodies the ability for us to see good in what was once traumatic. ‘Vayinachem otam vayadaber al libam.’ – ‘And he [Joseph] comforted them [his brothers] and spoke to their hearts.’ And so, too, Joseph’s days draw to an end.
What a powerful way to ‘finish well’, to forge goodness out of the crucible of family dynamics and existential fears. To be able to rise above our own petty grudges and knee-jerk responses to build a legacy of ‘chesed’, loving –kindness that will lead to powerful new beginnings and that can sustain us to face the challenges of times to come. Now that 2014 has gone and we find ourselves among the ashes of the old year, here’s to hoping that they render the new year fertile with promise and hope. It’s not Rosh haShanah, to be sure, our majestic Jewish season of repentance, but quiet January days can also lead to reflection and healing.
Wishing you a very happy and healing 2015 and Shabbat shalom.