Vayehi: passing on blessings of gratitude and endurance


Genesis 47:28-50:26

I Kings 2:1-12

When Jacob blesses his grandsons, the two sons of Joseph, he locates these boys in the chain of the family. He prefaces his blessing by addressing God, "the God, before whom my fathers walked — Abraham and Isaac" (Genesis 48:15). His fathers lived alert to the presence of God, and so lived significant, meaningful, serious lives.

Jacob can bless these boys, by implication, because of the exemplary devotion of his forebears. Receiving the blessing, in a sense, obligates the boys to this same wakeful attitude.

Jacob continues the preface to the blessing by addressing "the God who shepherds me from when I first began until this day" (Gen. 48:15). "Shepherds," to use the more precise meaning of the word, means "feeds" in this instance. Decades ago, when Jacob first left his parents' home, he had recognized that his ability to serve depended on God's care for him. He could serve only "if God will give me bread to eat" (Gen 28:20).

Now, looking back on his life, he acknowledges that God has kept the covenant. Jacob can bless his grandsons, by implication, because God has given Jacob food, without which one does not live at all. Receiving Jacob's blessing, in a sense, obligates the boys to appreciate the basic necessities of life.

Jacob concludes the preface of the blessing by addressing "the Angel who redeems me from all evil" (Gen. 48:15). It seems odd that this angel "redeems" Jacob "from all evil." Has he really experienced such a blissful, protected life?

In the course of his life, Jacob has endured all sorts of disasters. His mother successfully urged him to deceive his blind old father to get a blessing meant for his older twin, Esau. His twin brother threatened to kill him, forcing Jacob into a 20-year exile from his parents' home. His uncle and employer tricked him into marrying the wrong woman, the sister of the only woman he really loved, and then extorted seven more years of work from him for the next bride.

Though Jacob worked diligently, his father-in-law constantly finagled to try to get out of paying his wages. When, at long last, Jacob left this swindling relative, he had to sneak away in fear. When he returned home, he had to face his possibly murderous brother again.

Jacob's wives lived together in continuous tension. His beloved wife, long barren, died in childbirth. He had one favorite son, whom his other sons hated. He was led to believe that his favorite son died young, victim of an apparent attack by a wild beast; but perhaps Jacob suspected that his other sons had ganged up on this boy and nearly murdered him.

Some people experience such a deep sense of religious joy that whatever befalls them does not disturb their inner happiness. William James (in "The Varieties of Religious Experience") calls these the followers of the "religion of healthy-mindedness."

An example: When some Chassidim asked their teacher how to deal with adversity, he recommended that they take their question to Rav Zussya, who had experienced extraordinary illness, poverty and pain. But when they asked Rav Zussya, he demurred: "You'll have to ask someone else. I have been blessed all my life, thank God." Such people feel impervious to trouble.

Our ancestor Jacob was not such a person. He had an acute awareness of his troubles and complained bitterly (see Gen. 31:36-42, 37:35, 43:6, 48:7). When he came to Egypt, Jacob summed up the days of his life as "few and evil" (Gen. 47:9). Yet he blessed his grandchildren by reference to his experience of an angel who "redeems me from all evil."

How does this make sense? Not that Jacob enjoyed every turn of his life, nor that he felt detached. Rather, Jacob had survived his troubles. The Presence remained with him in all his afflictions and saw him through to better times. His grandchildren would know sorrow; but if they experienced a blessing like his, they would have the strength to endure through their troubles.