Endings and beginnings, blessings and mixed blessings.
by Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), is about endings and beginnings, blessings and mixed blessings, fathers and sons. It depicts the end-of-life stories of Jacob/Israel and Joseph; it closes out Genesis, the first book of the Torah; and it sets us up for the next unfolding of what will become Judaism. It’s a great read!
This year reading it, what popped out at me was a seemingly innocuous line:
“And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt 17 years: so the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 7 and 40 and 100 years. And the time drew near that Israel must die and he called his son Joseph, and said to him: ‘If now I have found favor in your eyes, pledge to me that you will deal kindly and honestly with me: please don’t bury me in Egypt.’” (Genesis 47:28-29)
Something about that line was so familiar. And then I remembered what bell it rang—at the beginning of the Joseph story, a few portions earlier, we read this:
“These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph at 17 years old was a shepherd with his brothers in the flock, and he was a youth along with the sons of Bilhah and of Zilpah (the wives of his father) and Joseph would bring bad reports about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” (Genesis 37:2-3)
I noted that both passages make a point of noting a specific period of 17 years. From this we can discern that Jacob was present for the first 17 years of Joseph’s life, and Joseph was present for the last 17 years of Jacob’s life. There is something beautiful about this spiritual symmetry—how the parent ushered in the child and the child ushered out the parent. And then it hit me why it these passages felt so familiar, why they seem connected.
My mom, of blessed memory, and I were a tightly-knit universe of two. I was an only child, and she was an only mom. We had wildly different temperaments, but shared a keenly attuned sense of humor. We were, in so many ways, each other’s favorite—and in some ways, we were also total strangers. We found favor in one another’s eyes, even when others couldn’t see us clearly. It was a complicated but delightful relationship, full of drama and pratfalls, moments of utter idiocy and sublime grace. Like Jacob, my mom ushered me into this world; and like Joseph, I ushered her out.
Because my mom and I were so close, I lived in morbid fear of her death for the first 40 years of my life. And then on October 30, 2000 at 10:03 am, I stood at the side of her bed, held her hand, and watched her take her last breath. And my fear died with her. Rather than being the worst day of my life, it was, most unexpectedly, one of the most joyous and peaceful. It really was a birth. And I didn’t see that coming, at all.
I love that the Torah doesn’t shy away from the messy, beautiful business of parent/child relationships. Unabashedly, we are shown that our forebears and their progeny were caught in tangled and complex bonds, with unhealthy alliances, and heartwarming tenderness. Some of these tales are tragic and some are triumphant, but all of them ring true and cling to the notion that spirit and nobility rise out of even our basest human tendencies. Jacob and Joseph had a great run. Though their journey was shot through with tragedy and missteps, they achieved great feats of faith, acceptance, and forgiveness. And healing. So much healing.
May we come to accept our own path as well as that of our parents as sacred and holy. May we find the joy, the light, and the beauty of who we are in our lineage. May we have faith that our story is important and Godly. May we find courage when faced with what we most fear, and may we bring healing, hope and hilarity where it is needed most.