search
Frederick L. Klein
Frederick L. Klein

VaYechi: Extracting Blessing from Tragedy

Jacob blessing the sons of Joseph: Rembrandt (WikiArt)

The name of this week’s parashah, VaYehi, ‘and he lived’ is very ironic, because almost the entire narrative concerns itself with Jacob’s preparation for death, and the ensuing aftermath of this death. Jacob is very aware that he must engage in sacred Jewish conversations with his children, informing them of his burial wishes in the land of Israel, blessing them, and even admonishing them when appropriate.[1]  Curiously, while the Torah tells us that he gathers his feet to the bed, breathes his last breath, and is gathered to his people, it omits the expected phrase ‘and he died’ (Gen. 49:33).  Rabbinic tradition, noticing this anomaly, declare the omission is because Yaakov Avinu Lo Met, Jacob our father never died (BT Ta’anit 5b).

Of course, this statement cannot be read literally. However, when one prepares for one’s own demise, focuses on the values that are important, and transmits those values to the next generation, in a very real way a person lives on. Indeed, there can be righteous people who live after they die! The rabbis ask us to focus on the fact that our lives are more than just an embodied experience, but our lives are defined by the values and relationships which we cultivate. Those elements persist well beyond the number of our years. In this way, the story of Jacob’s death is one of providing us the key to his own eternal life, a life experienced in the life of the Jewish people. Of course, another name for Jacob is Israel, and every one of us are called the children of Israel; as long as we call ourselves Israel, Jacob lives long beyond his physical years.

However, I would like to look at another aspect of clutching life from the jaws of death.  I believe Jacob at the end of his own life briefly grapples with one of the great tragedies of his days, the premature death of Rachel, his great love. Upon returning to the land of Israel, we are told that she conceives a child, Benjamin. However, like many women especially in previous eras, she struggles during childbirth. She turns to the midwives and calls the child Ben Oni, ‘the son of my sorrow’. She then dies upon the birthing stool. When Jacob receives the child from the midwives he renames the child Binyamin, sun of my right hand or strength (Genesis 33:19).[2]

What do we do when our dreams and hopes are crushed? When we think life will turn out right in the end, and then it really doesn’t? This child, this blessing, will forever be linked to the death of his most beloved. How does one look at that child’s angelic face and not also see the ‘angel of death’. No, Jacob could never live with the name Ben Oni, ‘son of my sorrow’. It would be too much to bear! For Jacob to love this child, to affirm the potential and the blessing of his youngest son, Jacob would need to reframe the event. This child was going to become Binyamin, a ‘son of strength’, a source of inspiration. Indeed, for all the years that Joseph was absent, Jacob and Benjamin’s souls were intertwined; it makes sense because this child provides the only living link to his mother. Of course, one never recovers from the death of a soulmate, but one can learn to live and love even after death. Jacob tweaks the name given by Rachel but does not completely change it. Still, in the renaming of Benjamin, we see how Rachel is given new life, because as he gazes upon his youngest son, Jacob can also remember the beauty, strength, and fortitude that defined his late wife. The renaming of Benjamin is not only a gift to the child, but a gift to Rachel. In Jacob renaming his son, he commits himself to remember her for all of who she was, and not to remain haunted by her traumatic death.

Yet in this week’s parashah, as Jacob prepares for his own death, he again returns to the road to Efrat, the place where his beloved Rachel was taken too soon. As our parashah opens Jacob calls for Joseph and his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe.  He tells Joseph that upon returning to Israel he had gone to Bet El, or Luz, and it was there that God named him Israel. God blessed him there. “I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession.” (Gen 48:4) He then informs Joseph that his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, will be just like his own children Reuben and Shimon, and thus Joseph will receive a double portion. Then Jacob reminisces. “When I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat”—now Bethlehem (Gen. 48:7). The text is confusing. What is the connection between God’s blessing, the elevation of Ephraim and Menashe and what seems to be an irrelevant story about Rachel?

It seems the promise given to Jacob, that the land has been given to him, justifies the decision to give the double portion to Joseph, as Jacob is the rightful steward to allocate the land of Israel as he wishes. It is also clear that Joseph is the king among his brothers, regardless of his age.[3] Still why the inclusion of the story of the premature death of Rachel?[4]

There are many approaches to this question, but I believe what seems parenthetic and tangential is in fact revealing something deep about Jacob, an insight we already saw in his renaming of Benjamin. When Jacob came back to the land of Israel with eleven children, sans Benjamin, he was told he was still to be fruitful and multiply, that ‘communities of people will issue from you’. Jacob, a person who struggled throughout his life with adversity, but nonetheless built a family and returned to the land of Canaan, heard in God’s words assurances that life would be easier, life would be simpler. He would be able to enjoy his children and grandchildren in his old age. However, no sooner is he given this promise, than he must bury his wife after dying in childbirth, taken before her time. What of the promise that he would be ‘fruitful and multiply’? Then, not only is his wife taken from him, but not too soon after that Joseph is taken from him as well, assumed dead. Far from being fruitful and multiplying, in the land of Israel, his progeny is being reduced. In a very real way, his dearest son, Joseph, had become his Ben Oni, the son of his sorrow. For all the years Joseph was gone, Jacob was as a man who is dead, a person inconsolable. Not being able to make sense of all this loss, Jacob became despondent.

However, when he hears in last week’s parashah that Joseph is indeed alive, Jacob is given new life (Gen. 45:28), and upon their first meeting, he exclaims he can now die knowing he is alive. The reason is that Jacob did not fear death itself, but a meaningless death following a life chasing after elusive promises and fleeting blessings. Joseph sudden reappearance reminded Jacob that he was indeed blessed.  While life did not go according to plan, life still had the potential for blessing, something he had forgotten. To realize blessings in this world is not merely to be the recipient of God’s graces, but to reframe the life one has in such a way that he sees God’s grace. One must become sensitive to the pregnant opportunities within life in which blessings can present themselves. Rachel dies, yet a son is born. Joseph disappears and is assumed dead, but in truth he not only lives he thrives.

But in reuniting with Joseph he not only regains his son. He gains two more children- Menashe and Ephraim! These children were also a revelation to him.  Reflecting upon both the blessing of fecundity and the subsequent sudden death of Rachel, Jacob sensed that perhaps the blessing could be fulfilled, but not in the way he understood before.[5] Jacob reasons to himself that the elevation of these two grandchildren to the status of children, like Reuben and Shimon, not only fulfills the promise of God, but also honors his wife and redeems her from a premature death.  Indeed, Rachel did have more children after Benjamin, but they are not from her own womb; they are the progeny of her child Joseph. Thus, Rachel does not have two children, but four children- Joseph, Benjamin, Ephraim and Menashe. This is a startling move, which shows an individual who tries to extract blessing from what was a tragedy. In reframing his life and expectations, inspired by the sudden reappearance of Joseph, he can be fruitful and multiply even until his old age. Just like the renaming of Benjamin, this elevation of Ephraim and Menashe will reframe the legacy of his beloved Rachel.

In our own lives, each of us needs to extract blessings and to see the hand of God.  They do not always come easily. Some of us have suffered the loss of dear family members, even children. Others have never had the opportunity to be a parent at all. Some live long lives, while other lives are cut short. We are sometimes taught that if we do the right things and take the right actions, we should be blessed. To put it simply, at first glance, that is often not true, and a source of great suffering. There are moments in our life, just like Jacob, when we simply cannot see any blessing.  To again extract blessing in the world is hard work and takes time as well as insight and reflection. Perhaps we indeed are blessed, but the blessings that we get are not necessarily the blessings for which we plan.

Jacob’s life was certainly not easy, but as he died with all those important around him, he realized he was still blessed. He did see God’s hand on his shoulder and was inspired. He realized his life had meaning. As such, he would live on even if his years were numbered.

Shabbat Shalom

(Dedicated to the eternal memory of M.R. and J.R.)

[1] The Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s initiative on spiritual care, Mishkan Miami, has created a site to help you with sacred conversations with your own families.  Go to Greater Miami Jewish Federation (jewishmiami.org) to learn more.

[2] To be sure, the Hebrew meaning is unclear and a subject of debates among the commentators, but this is one of the more common explanations.

[3] See Rashbam 48:5.

[4] Some of these thoughts were inspired by Rabbi Amnon Bazak, but take a bit of a different direction.  See Nekudot Peticha [Heb.], Yediot Books, 201, pp. 113-14

[5] See the instructive comments of Rashi 48:4 that indicates how Jacob reinterprets the original blessing.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments