Parashat Vayehi :Family Blessings
Several months ago when we were gathered in the Beit Kehillah for Shabbat services, I witnessed a touching exchange. Rabbi Marder asked the parents in the congregation to place their hands on their children as she was introducing the parents’ prayer. I am always touched when I see parents holding their squirming children lovingly. But what happened next was spontaneous and unexpected. As Cantor Kay, Rabbi Josh and I began to sing, Rabbi Janet stepped away from the reader’s table and made her way to the back of the Beit Kehillah. She stood behind her teenage children, placed her hands on their shoulders and together they sang. In the midst of leading services, Rabbi Marder took a few private moments to be with her familyalbeit in a very public settingto bless her children with these words; May God bless you like Ephraim and Menashe, like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
How often do we think to bless our children? Do we take a few moments from our harried lives to appreciate our children and show them affection? Do we gather around the Shabbat table and invoke the names of our ancestors? How often do we give thankseven after a week when we’re overwhelmed and our children drive us crazyfor the real blessing that our children provide for us every day of our lives?
Bestowing a blessing onto a child is one of the most sacred and intimate parental acts. It tends to be much easier when a child is young, and still clings to her parent. But children mature. A time comes when they don’t want to be treated like children anymore, even though they really are. They reach a certain age, and begin to test their parents. I’d like to think that my parents thought me to be an angel; their perfect son. I know that when I was a teenager, I thought I could do no wrong. But I’m sure there were many times when my behavior or attitude made them want to pull their hair out.
When I study with boys and girls working towards becoming bar or bat mitzvah, I frequently encounter the teenager who is very excited that once he becomes Bar Mitzvah, he thinks he will be miraculously transformed into a man. Indeed, his status will changethe Jewish community will acknowledge that he has certain roles and responsibilities that he didn’t one day earlier. But is he truly a man? Is she truly a woman? Not to the parents. She remains the little girl her daddy carried. But the young person begins or continues to act differently. He pushes boundaries. She is perpetually moodyangry one day, indifferent the next, sweet the following. They may be outgoing and loving, then suddenly withdrawn. Teens, on the other hand, think that parents are trying to meddle in their business. They are frustrated that they aren’t yet independent. They want privacy. They don’t want to talk to their parents. And so the tension increases. Perhaps every interaction with a parent is another opportunity to pick a fight or argument. It is extremely challenging when every day seems like a negotiation, and the roadmap to Shalom Bayit-- peace in the home appears to be more difficult to achieve than peace in the Middle East.
It is precisely because of this adolescent development, this period of time when teenagers are trying to figure out who they really are, when parents are learning and struggling to be a parent of a teen that parental blessings are so necessary. Just taking those few moments to shower affection and show appreciation reap great rewards. This constant expression of love shows that despite the arguments, the battles, and the apparent loss of control, indeed, our children are precious and we are grateful for the blessing they provide for us each and every day of our lives.
A parent-child relationship of this sort is not the only one fraught with tension. Indeed, many parents have taken on the responsibility of being caregivers to their own aging parents. And many children, like myself, who have not raised children of our own, or whose children are grown, begin to consider the new role they will most likely have to play as our parents age. Tension often escalates when we become our parents’ caregivers, when we begin making decisions for them.
I have a vivid memory of being my father’s caregiver. It happened a day after he returned home from the hospital following back surgery. In the realm of health issues, his surgery was relatively minor and his recovery, quick. But for a few days, my father was an old man in my eyes. He couldn’t take care of himself. I stood in the bathtub, washing his hair because he couldn’t bend or raise his hands without excruciating pain. Being his caregiver for a couple of days, I imagined a time in the future when this could indeed be a daily realitynot just a temporary post-operative necessity. My parents are relatively healthy and remain active, thank God. But I’ve noticed that between each of my visits to Boston they seem to age a bit. They’re a bit slower, their hearing isn’t as sharp. Dad’s driving isn’t as good. Granted, in comparison to some of their eighty-something friends, they are spring chickens. But I can’t help thinking back to a time when I was a young boy, and my mom or dad would wash my hair in the tub, in the same way I washed Dad’s hair during his recovery.
I saw my dad as an old man and it made me aware that our time together is finite. I hope and pray for many more good years. But I’ve begun to realize lately that mom and dad won’t be around forever. So I need to cherish our time together.
In the Torah portion we read this Shabbat, Jacob is able to cherish his final years surrounded by his family. Ironically called, Vayehiand he lived, the parasha chronicles the last years of Jacob’s life. Jacob is content in his old age. His sons care for him. He is grateful for the many quiet blessings that he is able to experience at long last. His son Joseph is alive and well. He has grandchildren. All of his sons have matured, and have finally found a way to get along and live with one anothersomething unimaginable when they were young, something many teens today may consider to be impossible. Before he died, Jacob had an opportunity that many aging parents today may not haveto gather the family together to share final words with his children and grandchildren. Now, I am not going to interpret Jacob’s final thoughts, for when you read them, they hardly look like the last words a child would want to hear from her parents. Nevertheless, Jacob had an opportunity to share some parting words, lasting advice, and perhaps warnings of what the future may hold for each of his sons.
Against this peaceful backdrop, Jacob summons his grandchildren, Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasheh to his side to be blessed. We don’t know much about Joseph’s sons. They have no voice. Little is mentioned of them. Yet their simple, brief appearance in the story teaches us something that previous brothers could not: How to live together in peace. Throughout the book of Genesis we are witness to poor sibling behavior. Many of my students enjoy pointing out the imperfections of these figures. Cain killed Abel in the field. Isaac and Ishmael fought for their father’s attention. Jacobour patriarch in this morning’s parashabetrayed his twin brother Esau, and tricked his father Isaac into granting him the blessing of the first-born. Joseph’s brotherswhom he has taken in to his new landsold him into slavery many years before and told their father he was dead. It is not until this last parasha that we discover siblings who can get along.
Menasheh was Joseph’s first-born son, Ephraim the younger one. When Jacob extended his hands to bless them and to bring them into the brotherhood of the ancient Israelites, he placed his right hand on the younger Ephraim instead of Menasheh. Joseph thought that his elderly fathernow blind and frailwas confused, and Joseph tried to switch his hands. But the text indicates that Jacob moved his hands deliberately. He knew that Menasheh was entitled to the blessing of the first-born, yet he gave it to Ephraim instead. Just as Jacob had stolen the blessing of the first born from his brother Esau decades earlier, here now he was switching the blessing for his grandchildren. Nevertheless, Menasheh did not protest. He did not claim the blessing as his own. He accepted the choice his grandfather made with silent approval. There was no outrage, no threats. Just acceptance of the will of an old man. To this day, when parents bless children with the prayer from our tradition, we invoke the names of Ephraim and Menasheh. Why? Perhaps because in the entire book of Genesiswhere sibling rivalry was fierce and dangerousEphraim and Menasheh are the only siblings who do not fight. They are role models for our families today.
Parashat Vayehi concludes the incredible journey of our ancestral first family. Children have been born to parents. Parents have struggled to offer their child the proper blessing. Parents have aged and diedoften before their children had an opportunity to return to them for final thoughts or a lasting blessing. Abraham died without speaking last words to his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac died without speaking last words to his sons, Jacob and Esau. But Jacob is surrounded by his family, still living, able to leave this world with no words unsaid.
Life is so fragile, so fleeting. We can’t afford not to bestow blessings on our children and our parents. We must take every advantage to talk to our children, talk to our parents, let them know that we care about them, that we love them, and that moments spent together are precious and finite. Despite the troubles and travails of Jacob and his family throughout his long and storied life, we see now an old man, content, able to die at peace. Let us consider the lessons of reconciliation and repentance, of communication, love and devotion that Jacob and his sons have taught us in recent weeks. And may we be resolved to draw closer our children and our parents, and share our blessings with one another. Amen.