Jacobs lesson: We are the blessings we seek in the world

Genesis 47:28-50:26
I Kings 2:1-12

This week’s Torah portion brings to a close the first of the Five Books of Moses and concludes the first chapter in the story of the children of Israel.

For the past nine parashahs we have carefully followed the lives and travails of our patriarchs and matriarchs. We’ve seen their wanderings, the tests of their faith and ethical judgment, the covenantal promises, the family struggles and rivalries that cut so deeply, the wrestling with God and the Divine messages, the painful yet promising reunions.

Most recently we read of the birth of 12 sons who will grow into tribes and ultimately become B’nai Yisrael.

Their personal rivalries and jealousies, their rages and furies, erupt at us from the Torah text.

The violence of Shimon and Levi in the wake of the rape of Dinah is disturbing; the immature egocentrism of Joseph is gnawing; his brothers’ plot to have him killed is heartless.

More heartless is the unfeeling coldness with which they inform their father, Jacob, of Joseph’s fate.

Judah mirrors that heartlessness in the manner in which he judges the fate of his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Here the Torah text is both cold and precise: “Take her out and burn her!”

All in all, when looking back at the stormy relations within Jacob’s own family, we cannot help but be moved when he sums up his own life experience to Pharaoh by saying “few and painful have been the years of my life.” (Genesis 47:9)

Painful, indeed.

In the parashah Vayechi, a storm-battered Jacob is on his deathbed. As he approaches his own death, he feels compelled to give his blessing to his children.

Knowing from his experience how the matter of a blessing may cause additional strife among siblings, Jacob calls his children to his side, ensuring that this time, there will be no treachery and no mistake. Each son will receive the blessing appropriate for him.

What a strange blessing Jacob offers his sons! The Midrash calls our attention to the fact that Jacob’s blessing is nothing more than fortunetelling, informing each son what will happen “in the end of days.”

Where is the promise of good things to come?

Where is the promise given to Abraham, that they will be a great nation and that their name will become great?

In fact, there seems to be a tremendous contrast between the blessings of Jacob and the blessing given to Abraham.

Abraham was blessed with becoming a blessing himself — “veheye brachah.” (Genesis 12:2) Abraham, in his person, was a channel of energy and goodness. He was given the key to all blessing. He was a brachah.

Jacob reveals to us another dimension of “being a blessing.”

To his own children he says: Your blessings are already in you. Your futures are already in you.

The key to living a life of blessing is to understand what you have within yourselves, to view the future as a gift, to use it wisely, to use it to bring greater promise to an under-blessed world.

It is as if Jacob had said: I was mistaken. I looked to my father Isaac to give me a blessing, to give me wealth and happiness. Do not make that mistake.

Do not look to me as the source of blessing. You create the blessing from what you have already been given in life.

“Everyone according to his blessing he blessed them” (Genesis 49:28) — each descendant of Abraham shares in Abraham’s blessing.

Each is in himself or herself a blessing. Each has been handed a key to open the gates that will allow blessings to flow freely to the world. Each person can offer the blessing that is unique only to him or her.

And if we could channel our own blessings, would we not then stand at the threshold of the redemption?

Rabbi Lavey Derby is senior rabbi of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and founder of the Neshama Minyan.