Vayechi - Maybe No Happy Ending After All...
Jacob is the last of our major patriarchs in Judaism, and his death closes the book of Genesis. Throughout his story, we see a complicated character, far more so than we might expect from someone who gives his name to the entire nation that will descend from his family. From the beginning, he manipulates his brother’s birthright so that the younger son inherits their father’s blessing, he plays favorites with his children while pitting them against one another, and he puts his own needs at the center of his decisions, even when it means undermining his hosts and relatives.
All of this is to say that Parashat Vayechi, the last of Jacob’s saga and the last in the book of Genesis, has a lot to teach us about the development of his story arch. This is the chance for him to redeem himself, to tie the story off in a nice little bow. Except that isn’t exactly what happens.
In the final sections of the story, Jacob favors Joseph by giving his sons a dual inheritance, and lifts Ephraim (the younger grandson) to supremacy over Manasseh (the older). He insists that his children leave the comfort of Egypt in order to bring him back to the land from which they had come in order to bury him in the ancestral plot that had been held by his father and grandfather. And his final prophecy for his sons dooms his first three children to servitude and condemnation, all while lifting up Judah, the fourth in birth order, as the ruler and leader of them all. In some ways, it looks like Jacob has learned nothing at all.
Throughout Biblical history, scholars have bent over backward to attempt to harmonize this person into the superhero we want him to be. We make all kinds of excuses, from turning Esau into a supervillain in the Midrash to exploring stories of why Reuben, Simeon, and Levi don’t deserve their father’s blessing like Judah does (although Judah impregnates his daughter-in-law who he thinks is a prostitute and the Torah doesn’t seem to have any moral qualms with that, so figure that one out…) But maybe what we are supposed to learn from our interactions with Jacob is that he is allowed to be a complicated, conflicted individual. Maybe we’re supposed to see ourselves reflected in that.
Jacob is known for his conflict. He is born after grappling with his twin brother in his mother’s womb. He manipulates (and is manipulated by) his uncle as he establishes his flock. He famously wrestles with some kind of divine being before reuniting with his brother. In so many of these cases, we see a man trying to live up to a legacy, often with mixed results. At the end of his life, he softens. He blesses both of his grandchildren, leaving them both with a beautiful future, albeit with one in higher esteem than the other. He leaves a legacy for his children to navigate, even though it punishes some, praises others, and shrugs off still more.
As we close this complex, engaging, entertaining, and unsettling book of the Bible, we get to see that sometimes we AREN’T able to harmonize everything. Sometimes we, as Biblical readers, are left to remember that not every story ends with revolutionary change, with the mistakes of the past fully forgiven and a new, brighter future revealed. Our Torah helps to mirror the realities we know, and remind us that even in those situations where it doesn’t work out perfectly in the end, it is still our obligation to read where we’ve come from and to critically assess how we might be able to better understand what happens next. Maybe the lesson of Genesis isn’t that we are expected to be like these people, but rather that we should continue to learn from these people, to continually be curious about what it means to be a person.
Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazeik, May we all find strength in our imperfections.