Blessing Your Children and Burying Your Dad: Vayechi Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
I never buried my father. When he died, he left his body to medicine. It was not only a snub to Judaism, for which he had little use in his hedonistic life. It was akin to a last act of irresponsibility towards his children whom he had deserted at a fairly young age.
My oldest brother was a cardiologist and helped my father end his life long before the assisted dying law was promulgated in Canada. Unlike myself, my brother always treated my father kindly. My father was then near the end. His kidneys had failed or were failing, a likely consequence of his long love of Seagram’s Canadian Rye. He would not have been eligible for kidney transplants. And his heart kept signalling that the pump needed extensive repairs. He was going to die and asked that my brother grant him one last blessing, that he be spared further pain. A hedonist to the end, when he was no longer able to pursue pleasure, he could still seek to avoid suffering. And you had to give him credit; he went with a smile on his lips. He was sixty-two years old.
That was over forty years ago. My brother was only a year older than I. He would also die at sixty-two years of age. He has been a terrific doctor. He really wanted to be an engineer. But I was a dominating younger brother and insisted that he apply to medical school. We had gone through high school together; we should also be together in university, went my illogical argument. In medical school, when we did rounds, he would quickly come up with a diagnosis. I would resist and insist that there were too many options possible with that set of symptoms. We could not possibly draw a definitive conclusion. His reply was always the same: “Don’t worry, my answer is correct.” And it was. Always.
He introduced the procedure known as angioplasty to Canada. The very procedure would kill not only him but another doctor and nurse who worked on the same apparatus. They all died of neuroblastomas. It was a vicious and vengeful form of cancer, attacking the precursor cells, the very embryonic material from which our bodies are derived. The death dragged out over almost eighteen months and was horrific. My mother suffered so much watching him die. He could save my father from pain lasting weeks and even months. But he could not save himself.
After my father died, my older and younger brothers left for a canoe trip and I was left to make the arrangements for the transfer of my dad’s body to the University of Toronto Medical School. But I do not remember doing a thing. I do remember walking all night through the streets of Toronto in total distress. Why was I so upset when I had detested my father for years? Why was I not home with my wife and four children?
Is there anything more important than how and where you bury your father and the very act of blessing your children?
The Parshat Vayechi ends the Book of Genesis. Chapter 47, verse 28 begins with a recounting of Jacob’s long life to the age of 147. I have always estimated that any one year in biblical accounting was 2 years in the way we measure a year, so Jacob had lived to almost 74 years of age. When Jacob was about to die, he made his sons pledge not to bury him in Egypt, but to swear by all that they stood for that he would be buried with his forefathers in the Land of Canaan. He was. Some of the verses of this section are taken up with the most elaborate funeral procession and depiction of a burial ritual in the whole of the Bible and stand in stark contrast with the one verse depicting Joseph’s funeral.
The Parshat and the whole Book of Genesis end with chapter 50, verse 26, “And Joseph died at the age of hundred and ten years [at only 55 in my calculation], and they embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” (my italics) What an ending! What a beginning! The whole foundation story of the Israelites and their creation as a nation ends with the first diaspora Jew being buried, not according to Jewish custom, but in accordance with Egyptian practice.
Jewish tradition, as I understand it, prohibits embalming. If you embalm someone, you drain out that person’s blood and replace it with embalming fluid. That means that blood, the life circulating system of the body, is not buried with the corpse. What a contrast with watching Jewish religious figures after a terrorist attack in Israel gathering up every last hair and every last speck of blood to be buried with the body. When I read this section, I think of the corpse of Joseph, as the great Vizier of Egypt, being put on display as Egyptians march past by the thousands. But there is no depiction of the funeral and disposition of Joseph’s body. The depiction is extremely terse, in stark contrast to the elaborate description of Jacob’s funeral procession and burial, though Joseph ordered that his father be embalmed as well, presumably in preparation for the long trip and in acknowledgement of local customs, but not at Jacob’s request.
If your parents die, you owe them, more importantly, you owe yourself, you owe life, a proper goodbye. There is no worship of death. The focus is on the living, on dealing with loss even when a parent is despised, even if that relative was not a loved one. There is no more important function of a rabbi that presiding at a funeral. But Joseph was embalmed.
The major part of this section is taken up with the blessing of children. We had already read how important not only the birthright but, even more significantly, the blessing was to our forefathers. Jacob literally cheated his brother out of that blessing. And Jacob’s father, Isaac, had even been blessed directly by God. My oldest son named after the Prophet of Peace, Jeremiah, was, at my request, literally blessed by Linus Pauling in a small living room of our apartment located on Spadina Avenue just opposite the University of Toronto. Pauling was one of the few figures in history to win two Nobel prizes. And that son has been a great blessing to the academic world. I always thank Linus.
Most people, as I understand them, think a blessing is intended for the one blessed, to favour and protect them, to guarantee them a long and beneficial life. After all, if you asked for a daughter’s hand in marriage traditionally, you first asked her parents for their blessing, for their endorsement of the match, for their well wishes for their daughter’s well-being and happiness. And when we say the blessing for wine and bread on Friday evenings when we welcome shabat as a wife once more into our lives, the English translation of the prayer goes as follows:
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe
who finding favuor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.
In love and favor, You made the holy Shabat our heritage
as a reminder of the work of Creation.
As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
You chose us and set us apart from the peoples.
In love and favour You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.
Praise to You, Adonai, who sanctifies Shabbat.
Baruch atah, Adonai
Eloheinu, Melech Haolam,
borei p’ri hagafen.
Baruch atah, Adonai
Eloheinu, Melech haolam,
asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’ratzah vanu,
b’ahavah uv’ratzon hinchilanu,
zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit.
Ki hu yom t’chilah l’mikra-ei kodesh,
zecher litziat Mitzrayim.
Ki vanu vacharta, v’otanu kidashta,
b’ahavah uv’ratzon hinchaltanu.
Baruch atah, Adonai, m’kadeish HaShabbat.
A blessing is intended primarily, not to protect us, not to defend ourselves against trouble and tribulation, but to allow us to go forth and do good in the world, to perform mitzvot, to be part of the process of creation rather than destruction. And in so doing, we do not recall our own coming into being as a nation living in Egypt, we do not recall the splendour and the glories and the pleasures and the power the Israelites had in Egypt. Instead, we recall the Exodus, the leaving and the return to the land of promise. We recall the Exodus from Egypt, the exodus from being embalmed and glorified by the masses but instead the burial by our children.
It is not as if Jacob wished the best for his children. Instead he claimed to know who they are and what the character of each of them was and how each would or would not contribute to the well-being of the world. He did not offer them protection and well-being, but asked of them to contribute to the protection and well-being of others in the best way their personalities allowed.
Look at the blessings Jacob offered his various children. Reuben, his firstborn, whom he said should have been superior in strength and power and rank, instead was characterized by restlessness, the restlessness of water. That meant he could not become what he was supposed to become. Instead he profaned his father’s bed. And, though he would regret it, he was not there to direct his brothers when they decided to kill their brother Jacob and it was left to Judah to negotiate on behalf of Joseph’s life. Reuben was the epitome of that basic element of life, water, that Heraclitus of Ephesus declared embodied the essence of living – flux and change, a lack of stability and incapable of serving as a point of reference, as a guide to the people, to his people. He lacked, as the speaker, a Deputy Minister said at lunch yesterday, a North Pole as a reference. Jacob, in blessing Reuben, was not offering him God’s well-being and protection, but measuring him against the standards of well-being and protection.
“Simeon and Levi are brothers, stolen instruments are their weapons.” (49:5) It is they who betrayed the men of Shechem and slaughtered them all after they had agreed to become circumcised and join the Israelites, while they were still in pain and suffering for that ordeal undergone in adult life. Did Jacob mean to say that those who live by the sword will die by the sword? At the very least, his blessing was a rejection of the doctrine that might is right. He, and his name, would not be associated with forbidden actions. So the children of Simeon and Levi were scattered among the Israelites and could not live together in their own province lest they use the doctrine of might is right to prevail over the people and the land of Israel.
And what about Judah? What about the archetypal negotiator and mediator, the man not of pure ideals, but of practical politics, the man washed in the art of the possible? “Judah, [as for] you, your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at the nape of your enemies, [and] your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you.” (49:8) One might have thought that this is a blessing that would go to Joseph, for at the time were not Joseph’s own brothers bowing down to him just as Joseph had once dreamed? Was it not Joseph who held his countryman, indeed, all of Egypt and all of the surrounding peoples, by the nape of their necks?
Precisely because Judah was destined to only hold enemies by the napes of their necks, was Judah to be blessed with a leadership role, a leadership role not bestowed by nature and primogeniture nor by physical force, but by diplomacy and negotiating skills. “A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah. From the prey, my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?” (49:9) A negotiator watches and waits for opportunities and then springs into action. And he does so, not to demand the prey for himself, but to ensure that the prey is available for all of the pride. The lion is a watcher, an observer, a protector – of both territory and of those under its charge.
That requires courageous, not rash action, the ability to choose when and where to spring into action with the most force and effectiveness. Unlike Simeon and Levi, Judah did not pick fights but sought to avoid them, even by offering his own life as a pledge. He was chosen by history to negotiate out of an impasse when his own brothers wanted to kill another of their own kind. And behind the willingness to bargain and even fight if necessary, was a willingness to die for what he believed. An animal lion is a hunter of prey seeking to take advantage of the weak. A human lion protects the weak and prevents the strong from feeding off them. This does not mean that he does not retain his scepter at his side; it does mean that he will always be “a student of the law between his feet” (49:10) that will constitute the ground on which he walks. He does not contribute to the divisions among peoples, but to their reconciliation and collaboration.
Judah “binds his foal to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes binds his raiment.” (49:11) What does it mean to wash your clothes in wine and bind your vestments in the blood of grapes? What does it mean to tether your ass to a tendril of a vine? The latter is usually associated with a positive evaluation of acquiring wealth, of acquiring abundance and not with idealizing poverty or self-sacrifice. As a colleague in Torah study insists, look at the root. The three-letter root of a donkey or an ass – chamor – is the same used in reference to the material nature of the world. But why bathe your clothes in wine and bind your vestments in the blood of the grape?
Look at the blessing for wine printed above. We acquire wealth so that we can clothe ourselves with good deeds, with mitzvot. The material world is not an end in itself. We acquire wealth to do good works, to make the world a better place. This is Judah’s mission. That is why Judah will be red-eyed from wine, not because his eyes are bloodshot, but because they weep and wail at the suffering of mankind, of humanity. And his teeth are “white-toothed from milk.” Because instead of the gristle of meat stuck between his teeth, the teeth of a human lion glisten with the milk of human kindness.
And what of the other brothers? The descendants of Zebulun will be fishermen. Fishers of just fish or fishers of souls? Isasachar will not stand on the law as the ground of his being, but his descendants will carry the law on their backs and become the bearers of the law, the courts, the prosecutors, the judges, the defenders of the accused. It is on their backs that the fulfillment of the rule of law will rest. And law will be made in the bony cleft between the left and right protuberances in case by case by case.
Dan will be an avenger standing always alert on the high ground ready to spill his wrath and blood on those who would injure the children of Israel. But Dan will also be a viper, a serpent on the path ready to bite the horse’s heels, ready to go behind the lines and wreck havoc among those who threaten Israel. Gad will make up the infantry in defence of the people. Asher will provide the food to nourish everyone. Naphtali will be a writer, a poet, a spinner of tales, a wordsmith.
And Joseph, the charmer and the dreamer? What blessing did Jacob bestow upon his favourite? He obviously knew his son well. For he foresaw that a charismatic leader initially brings about a unity of spirit, but it soon disintegrates into bitterness, jealousy and results in a quarrelsome polity riven with bitter strife. For Joseph, as brilliant as he was as a visionary, as efficient as he was as an administrator, was incapable of reconciling or even giving recognition to differences. But he would sustain the rock of Israel through the power and wealth he acquired. He would serve as a conduit from past to a more secure future, as an intermediary between man and God, so that the blessings of the divine can be bestowed on his people. He would be the guarantor of survival, even if he was left embalmed in a foreign land.
Why Jacob blessed Ephraim before Manasseh requires itself a full blog.
Blessed are all of my children. May each in his or her own way, and in accordance with his or her own character, be a blessing unto the world.
With the help of Alex Zisman