|Photo by: Illustrative photo: MCT|
Parshat Vayehi: From generation to generation
By SHLOMO RISKIN
‘Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father’ (Genesis 49:2).
‘Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father’
Death-bed scenes are usually fraught with tragedy; deep
sadness at the specter of a life coming to an end with the inevitable
frustrations of thwarted dreams, wrongs not yet righted, potential
accomplishments now forever beyond grasp. Even under the best of circumstances,
with the individual leaving the world at an advanced age and without pain, it
must nevertheless remind the onlookers of our mortality, our frailty and
vulnerability, “as a driven leaf, a broken potshard, a vanishing cloud, a
passing dream…” But our portion is called Vayehi, which literally translates as
“and he shall live.” This does not convey an unraveling and unwinding denouement
to past reminiscences, but rather an optimistic and uplifting climax to future
“Death, be not proud”; Angel of Death, be not arrogant!
Jacob, who entered the world as a grasping “heelsneak,” struggling desperately
to circumvent and overtake his elder brother, now leaves the world as a
triumphant champion of Divine righteousness – Yisra-El (Israel). How is it that
he leaves not as one who has “passed away” but rather as one who still walks
within eternity? The answer to this question is the major message of the Book of
Genesis and is clearly expressed in the Talmud: “Jacob our father did not die”
(Ta’anit 5b). But, you will argue, the Bible itself records that he died and was
embalmed and is buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (Gen.
No; father Jacob never died. As long as his children, his
descendants, live, he still lives.
THE LEITMOTIF running through the
pages of Genesis is Abraham’s mission to bring compassionate righteousness and
moral justice to the world. It remains the major goal and responsibility of his
progeny to convey that message and its blessings to the next generation – until
it is accepted by all of humanity. We are the people of the unfinished symphony
– and each purveyor of the music lives on within the music from generation to
Hence, Jacob is called the “chosen” of the Patriarchs; all of
his progeny remained within the family of Israel.
No one was banished
(like Ishmael) or defected from the ranks (like Esau). Jacob is the most
precisely delineated of all of the personalities in the Bible; just as he
progresses from the one who circumvents and sneaks from behind to the one who
confronts honestly and champions, so does he mature from the father who is
interested only in Joseph to the patriarch who blesses (and honestly evaluates)
each of his sons.
This maturation of Jacob was not straightforward. We
can readily understand the father’s special feelings for the eldest son of the
love of his life (for whose hand in marriage he labored under Laban for 14
years) who then died in the prime of her life.
Moreover, the other
brothers hated Joseph – and Jacob most certainly suspected them of foul play
when they showed him Joseph’s bloodied tunic, claiming that “wild beasts have
torn him apart.” When, 22 years later, he discovered that Joseph was alive, he
most certainly figured out that, at the very least, they must have commandeered
him into Egypt. Jacob even swallowed his furious anger when Reuben slept with
his secondary wife, Bilhah – apparently in order to maintain the integrity of
the 12 sons, the unity of the family and continuity of the message (Genesis
What enabled father Jacob to be so forgiving – and even forgiving
of his beloved Joseph for not having contacted the father who had lavished him
with so much love and favor? Apparently it was because Jacob understood that
through his favoritism he was an unwitting accomplice to – indeed, even the main
cause of – the dysfunction of the family. At the very least, he would have to
forgive his sons (even Reuben, whose immoral act could well be seen as a silent
protest by the son who had been rejected as his father’s rightful heir) if he
would ever be able to forgive himself.
It was Jacob’s ability to repent
and change himself which enabled him to believe that his sons could and would
repent and change themselves. From repentance emerges forgiveness – the special
forgiveness fueled by familial unity and love, the Godly forgiveness which the
Almighty has for His children and which every parent must have for his or her
We must retain under the familial umbrella as many of our
children as we possibly can – for it is through our children that we, and God’s
mission, continue to live.
Forgiveness begets forgiveness. The young and
arrogant Joseph, who had seen himself – and not God – at the center of his
dreams, is ultimately able to forgive his brothers. This happens 22 years later,
when he learns that we are all subject to God’s plan and that it was God who
planned for him to become grand vizier of Egypt in order to save the Abrahamic
mission from extinction. Joseph also understands how his immature hubris
engendered his brother’s enmity; he must forgive them if he is to forgive
himself. The leader of the family must unite the family in love and
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone
Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.