VaYechi is the last Torah reading in the Book of Beresheit (the Book of Genesis). It is just that- the story of the beginning, or genesis, of the world and of a people. The parsha begins with a word that in biblical Hebrew means “and he lived”, and in modern Hebrew means “and he will live”. It is appropriate because this word refers to Jacob who died in this parsha but created the family legacy which would continue, living as the Jewish nation.
Our forefathers and foremothers did not have perfect family lives. There was jealousy, jostling for power and attention, and lifelong resentments. We read about favouritism. There was very little tenderness exhibited in the harsh lives they led. However, tenderness does appear in this parsha.
When Jacob was 137 years old he had been living in Egypt with Joseph and his other 11 sons for 17 years. He knew he was about to die and called Joseph and Joseph’s sons to his bedside. “…he kissed them and embraced them. And Yisrael said to Joseph,’ I had not thought to see your face: and lo, God has also shown me your children.’ ” (Genesis ch 47 v..11) Yaakov was expressing the longing he had felt for decades, never believing he would see his son Joseph again. Neither Abraham nor Isaac had ever spoken to their children with such honesty and warmth.
We go on to read the first ethical will ever recorded. Jacob spoke to each of his sons, and to his two favourite grandsons. He foresaw how they were going to navigate the world. The prescience could have been see by the sons either as warnings or as guidelines for how to lead their lives in the best way possible. As well as speaking about the children’s’ attributes Jacob also made it clear that when he died he was to be buried in Canaan in the same place his wife Leah, his parents Isaac and Rebecca, and his grandparents Abraham and Sarah had been buried.
This scene and this request- he actually insisted that it be an oath- were the greatest lessons of all. By gathering the sons together in one room and speaking to each of them one by one Jacob was cementing the family unit. It wasn’t a speech to all the servants and to those Egyptians who respected him, it was a speech only to his sons. This showed them how he valued them as a family unit with common roots, and that they would retain their nationhood and integrity if they stayed together.
The insistence that he be buried in Canaan was an indication that Canaan, not Egypt, was his and their homeland. That being said, Joseph was the only one of the twelve sons who made an oath that he too would be buried in Canaan.
As always there are many lessons in the parsha. Communication in family, showing love to our children, expressing our deepest wishes, seeing each child as an individual, the power of the ethical will, unity, and being in the right place are all lessons from this reading.
We live in a frightening world with too much hatred and too much violence. If we stand together as a unified nation, if we live with the integrity laid out in halachah (Jewish precepts and law), and if we know who we re as Jews and where we belong, maybe we can help heal our nation and heal the world more effectively. As we go forward we might also be able to learn from Yaakov Avinu (our father Jacob’s) ethical will to us, his descendants.
With blessings for goodness and peace, Shabbat Shalom.