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Thoughts on Vayechi

In the last section of the first book - Bereshit -, the book about family and relationship, the death of two important people is reported. Ja'acob, who by this time was also called Yisra'el, and his son Joseph die, and the accounts of the very early formative days of our teaching thus come to an end. After that, the suffering and the journey to the promised land begins.

Staying with the personnel, Joseph experiences brotherly strife in his life with his siblings, as well as Ja'acob, Yizchak with their respective siblings, and in our parashah today he finds the strength to reconcile. It seems to be almost a common thread that while family ties - and even our history as a community - can be strained or even torn apart, only reconciliation enables their perpetuation. Without reconciliation and debate, we inevitably part ways.

Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844) The Death of Jacob

But I would like to turn my attention to another particular context in Vayechi. Two significant figures, Ja'acob and Joseph, father and son, form the tension of the narrative. One would like to think that one continues the other's work. And certainly many answers lie ready in this view. But what are the differences between father and son, is there a development, is there a lesson for us? Or at least hints?

First of all, it is noticeable that both were not firstborns or may have enjoyed precedence among the siblings because of other formal reasons. Nevertheless, they both occupy prominent positions in the Torah's narrative. On closer inspection, it also becomes clear that neither was infallible and at times engaged in morally questionable behavior in order to maintain and consolidate their respective positions as heads of families. Both also brought considerable suffering upon themselves through overconfidence and arrogance in their youth (flight and indentured servitude for Ja'acob and deportation and enslavement for Joseph) and grew from it over the course of their lives.

In the beginning of Vayechi, it becomes clear that Ja'acob is not really aware of some of his mistakes as a father, or at least makes no attempt to change. Thus, we continue to find no reference to Dinah, the "lost" daughter in the Torah narrative, for example, in the giving of the blessing. This weakness in his fatherhood is not resolved. Nor does he continue to follow his habit of favoring one son - namely Joseph, even though he knows very well the dangers of such behavior from his own childhood. In the case of his grandchildren, he again does not adhere to the order of blessings that was considered just at the time. After his death, the other sons will put in his mouth an order to Joseph to make sure that he reconciles with the brothers. Thus, the task of making peace in his family in this regard does not come from Ja'acob himself either, but from his sons, who take it on out of fear.

Does Ja'acob have a sense of the missteps and omissions in his life? Does he know or suspect that his words will have an effect beyond the moment and are therefore sharp swords and can also cause mischief? Is he at all interested in the lives of others at the time of his death? He has previously made Joseph swear to bury him according to his wishes. But what about the future of the others? Doesn't a grandson who has less favorable prospects in life need God's blessing much more than the one who seems to be on the sunny side anyway? What about Ja'acob's compassion? We don't know. But the questions alone can be troubling, can't they?

Joseph, like his father, often had his own advancement very clearly in mind in his early and middle years (dealing with brothers, uncritically accepting his father's favoritism) and lived a varied and contrasting life: from favorite son to slave, from captive to leader, from haughty youth to indulgent old man. Later, he is seen as a superior man, embodying strong will, deep devotion, talent and humility (W. Gunther Plaut and Annette Böckler, 2016). Towards the end of the Torah portion, his loving, thoughtful and wise nature becomes more and more evident. This culminates in the response אַל-תִּירָוּ כִּי הֲתַהַת אֱלֹהִם אָנִי׃ (Fear not! Am I in God's place?), with which he humbly submits to God's judgment despite his undisputed power. And unlike his father, he seems to have the future of his descendants more clearly in mind. His request for burial in the promised land seems like an oath to give hope to his descendants, rather than a concern for his own well-being.

What can I take from these reflections today, what can I learn from them? The following thoughts come to my mind.

  • Human greatness and exemplarity do not necessarily require a flawless lifestyle or character. It may even be a hindrance. As is so often the case, the Torah offers us real people with different sides as identification figures, who are so easy to empathise with precisely because of their humanity.

  • The overcoming of difficult times is also described here as something that promotes our personal development. Almost everyone knows this from their own lives. But that alone does not seem to be enough for the whole journey. A certain amount of humility and modesty must also be added in order to recognise one's own failures as such and then also learn from them. Ja'akow seems to take this last step much shorter than his son Joseph.

  • I am glad to see that Joseph shows us that change is possible and that referring to traditions (alignment with the values of the father) does not automatically mean going backwards. Rather, we must - as I understand it - on the one hand emulate the examples of our parents and ancestors, but at the same time not shy away from developing beyond their limitations.

With this in mind, I will in future be even more conscious of wishing for my children to become like Joseph's children Efraim and Menashe. And beyond that. Step by step.

For myself, these thoughts are great incentives for my own development. It fits in perfectly with the turn of the bourgeois year, when I, like many others, somehow can't help resolving one or two things for the new year.

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