Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Vayechi

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The Functional Family

By Michael Chessen

The actions of our patriarch Jacob, as detailed over roughly the last half of the book of Genesis, have been both wondrous and often difficult to fully fathom. In Genesis' closing reading of Vayechi, Jacob confers blessings upon the heads of what will from this point now become the twelve tribes of Israel. While this moment is probably Jacob's (or Israel's) "holiest" of his life, leaving us with not only blessings but much prophesy as well, at least on the surface of things, we nevertheless have to wonder somewhat at the manner in which Jacob proceeds.

In seeming to leave his first three sons not with a blessing but only with a rebuke for past actions, the dying patriarch appears to potentially be "sowing seeds of discontent" not unlike those sown by Isaac in blessing Jacob at Esau's apparent expense. Were we to dismiss this explanation as superficial, we would seem to be left hard pressed to explain our Rashi commentary, consistently our most immediate resource for understanding the Torah's "plain" meaning, which here, as a prelude to Judah's blessing, has Jacob needing to first allay Judah's concerns before he flees from what initially appears not to be a session for receiving blessings, but for settling old accounts.

However, upon closer examination of both Jacob's words and their accompanying Rashi commentary, we find that the elder brothers were neither as personally rebuked as they appear to be, and more importantly, nor were they excluded from the blessings. In recalling Shimon and Levi's vengeful slaughter of the people of Shchem, Jacob curses not his sons, but only their anger.

Upon Jacob's concluding the blessing of the twelfth and final tribe, the Torah then states that Jacob "blessed every one according to his blessing he blessed 'them'."(Genesis 49:28). The use of the pronoun "them" in closing Genesis actually harkens us back to the opening of Genesis, where God also blessed "them", here, man and woman before Eve had even come into existence. The parallel between these two collective and inclusive blessings would be that just as a man is also endowed with "feminine" characteristics such as the capacity to nurture and a woman also endowed with "masculine" characteristics such as the capacity to hunt, so do Israel's twelve tribes, while each excelling in one or more given social, spiritual or productive dimension, also reflect all of the various different capacities which have been attributed to each of their brethren.

May we all as individuals ever strive to strengthen our individual talents and abilities in order to complete and beautify that mosaic which is the family of the Jewish people.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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