Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Death and life are closer than you think. In our human experience, they are so close that many cultures have created rituals to stave off our fear of death in the darkest of Winter’s days, when the veil between life and death seems thin. Now that I’ve moved to the north of England, I appreciate that impulse all the more so.
Every culture has its own way of doing so. The Pagans of yore burnt Yule logs and the Romans enjoyed a week of revelry during Saturnalia. The Midrash and Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8b) state that there’s a link between Chanukkah, the Solstice and a story of Adam, the first Man, who created fire on the darkest day. And then, of course, there is Christmas, a holiday superimposed on older, primordial pagan practices, in which we welcome light and cheer.
Christmas and Chanukkah, however, don’t only allow us to light a candle against the dark but also bring us together to enjoy family time. Yet, the winter holidays can present us with family conflicts and tensions: who goes to which family for Christmas dinner or lunch? For those of us with non-Jewish family, Chanukkah and Christmas can clash as well. In a time with so many varieties of family (blended, adopted, chosen) as well as religious and cultural identities, there is no doubt that our lives have been greatly enriched by all these relationships but can also be logistically challenging!
As we read the last Torah portion of B’reishit, the logistics of family life take centre stage. We are finishing up the Joseph cycle and next week, during the reading of the book of Shemot, we will ‘zoom out’ from family soap opera-style drama to the forging of peoplehood. Right now, though, we still read about the colourful dynamics of Jacob’s and Joseph’s family as Jacob prepares himself for death.
Ironically, just like Parashat Chayei Sarah, Vayechi (‘And he lived’) is very much a portion about dying as it is about living. Life and death are intimately connected, as are ancestors and progeny, parents and children, blessings and curses.
Parashat Vayechi is mostly the contemplation of two great as well as flawed ‘family men’: Jacob and Joseph, and how they seek to bind the generations through blessings, admonishments, vision and love. Vayechi isn’t a ‘neat’ story. There’s nothing sterile, sober or manicured about it. It doesn’t paint an idyll of a peaceful old patriarch who smiles beatifically upon his heritage. Rather, the Torah’s portrayal is gritty, warm and real as it balances between recognising the complexity of each family member. Jacob is unflinchingly honest in his assessment of each son. Some are blessed, others admonished, some he holds in high esteem, others not, but he does know the temperament and story of each of his children and grandchildren and honours their uniqueness in a way that feels surprisingly modern. Of course, he has hopes for them to continue his covenantal charge but he also sees them for the full, rounded persons they are—a skill that can be difficult for any parent.
We can learn different lessons from Jacob’s blessing.
First of all, consequences matter. Jacob and his sons cannot get away from what they did to Joseph. They fear the consequences of their actions and have to repair the damage they did.
Second of all, character trumps circumstance. Menasheh, Joseph’s first born, is switched with Ephraim, the second born, during Jacob’s blessing, in an act that echoes Jacob’s own claim on his brother Esau’s birthright. Primogeniture was a very real and rather crippling social institution in traditional societies and the Torah creates a theology of relationship that bucks this. At the end of the day, one’s moral compass and actions matter most.
And third of how, love conquers all. Or at least, genuine repentance (‘teshuvah’) does. Family relationships can be torn asunder for reasons ranging from the existential to the inane, but they can also be repaired. There is always hope for renewal, even in the darkest of days.
“His brothers went to him [Joseph] themselves, flung themselves before him and said, “we are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” Gen. 50:18-21
“Al tir’u ki hatachat Elohim ani?... vayinachem otam vayidaber al libam” – “Don’t be afraid, am I in place of God? And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.”
Chanukkah and Christmas, darkness and light, family and destiny, these are all cast together in remarkable ways during this season. Perhaps the Parashah can help us navigate our own relationships as we have spent more intense times at the shared table, with our shared history, our shared conflicts, our shared loyalties and our shared love.
As the Queen voiced in her Christmas speech:
“It is true that the world had to confront moments of darkness this year, but… we shouldn’t be discouraged; rather, it inspires us to try harder, to be thankful for the people who bring love and happiness into our own lives, and to look for ways of spreading that love to others, whenever and wherever we can.”
Light and love, these are the forces that bind life to death. It is a cliché, but clichés are true. May we all find peace in those around us, those we love best (and can often find most difficult) and may we spark a light that radiates outward, from the intimacy of our lives and stories to the world entire, so that we may be a ‘comfort’ and ‘speak to the hearts’ of those near and far.