Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt, 1656
The Torah reading, Va’Yechi, describes the last days of Jacob’s life. He led a complicated life. He balanced the challenges of marriage and supporting a large family with his God given role as the third patriarch of a new people. He used strategy and manipulation to reach his dreams and accomplish his goals.
The word Va’Yechi means “and he lived”, emphasizing that Jacob had really lived and learned, that he had not merely coasted along in life and survived. In a way his life began when he had to run away from his brother Esau. At the end of his life we see how experience taught him deep wisdom and the clarity to understand people.
Jacob was raised in a family where his father, Isaac, loved the older brother Esau, and Rebecca, the mother, favoured Jacob, the younger brother. Although the two boys were twins Esau (the elder by only minutes) was expected to be bequeathed the greater inheritance and family rights. The parents’ preferential treatment towards different children and Jacob’s desire for some of his brother’s rights led to mistrust and maybe even hatred. The family splintered because of it.
Jacob repeated the preference of the younger over the older throughout his life. He chose to marry Rachel, the younger of two unmarried sisters, countering common practice. Jacob presented Joseph, his favoured son, not Reuben the first born, with a regal tunic.
Jacob and Joseph, by Laya Crust
The choices led to a fractious relationship with his brother Esau, a bitter life with competitive wives, and the disappearance and supposed death of his favourite son. The family challenges coupled with a famine must have mellowed Jacob and increased his empathy and understanding of others.
Jacob learned and stood by an important lesson. Do not judge people by birth order or by wealth. I suspect he learned his respect for wisdom and leadership over birth order and wealth from his parents. His mother left a manipulative brother to live a new life. His father was a second son who inherited the role to establish a new nation. Jacob, like his father, recognized that he, not his older brother, was to be the leader of the Jewish people. Although it may have been contrary to the norms he and his mother devised a plan to make sure the most appropriate son received the appropriate blessing.
Isaac Blesses Jacob, by Laya Crust
Jacob raised Joseph differently from his brothers, possibly recognizing that Joseph needed a different education to fulfill his potential. In a stark replay of history he blessed his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim, in the “wrong” order- the younger before the older.
At the end of his life he spoke to each of his sons, and seeing each for who they were. He recognized various sons as strong leaders, successful politician, merchant, trader, warrior, baker, and farmer. The text says,”…and this is that which their father spoke to them, and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49: 28)
In the secular calendar we are beginning the year 2018- 20 “chai” or “life”. It is almost 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and now, once again, we live in our homeland of Israel. Let us hope that this year brings all of us the wisdom that Jacob showed – the wisdom to recognize each person for whomever he or she is, the wisdom to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of those around us, and the wisdom to recognize and value our children and friends for who they are.
May this be a year of peace, honesty, and goodness. I hope everyone will have the wisdom of Jacob to see what is good, what is evil, and to fight the right battles.
Shabbat Shalom, Laya