Parashat VaYechi 5783


4 January 2023 – 11 Tevet 5783

Rabbi Ariel J Friedlander, Or ‘Ammim, Bologna

 

Each year even the most scholarly of Jews rereads the weekly portions of the Torah. The words may still look the same, but perhaps we have changed. Certainly our perspective will not be from the same place in our timeline, and we will have another year of experience through which to filter it. Thus, perhaps, a different part of the text may resonate, as we notice something once glossed over is now suddenly interesting.

Some years ago I gave a sermon about this week’s portion that highlighted the blessing the dying patriarch Jacob gave to his grandsons Efraim and Menashe[1], which became the traditional blessing that parents gave to their sons each Friday night[2]. At that point in my early thirties, I wrote about the empty Shabbat tables that had no children to bless, and investigated Jewish attitudes to infertility[3].

A couple of decades have passed since then, and many communities now ask all present in the sanctuary to bless the children of the congregation. As someone who wanted to be a parent but was never able to become one, I find comfort and connection in this development. So this year I’d like to know what was so special about those two boys, Menashe & Efraim, the sons of Joseph.

The most popular reason given for Efraim and Menashe being held up as examples for our children is that they never fought with each other. Previously, Cain & Abel, Isaac & Ishmael, Jacob & Esau, Joseph & his brothers had all had major conflicts. These two  were the first siblings recorded as living in peace together. The text does not explain exactly how they achieved it, but the root of this change may be seen near the end of our portion.

After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that it is finally time for payback, and so they fake a message from their father that instructs Joseph to forgive them. Joseph is moved to tears, and reassures them, speaking kindly to them[4]. Although he acknowledges that they did treat him terribly, he notes that this led to the blessed circumstances in which they currently exist. Joseph also promises to take care of his brothers and their families. He is no longer a spoiled teenager who bigs himself up in the face of his older brothers. Through the lens of his experience, he sees a bigger picture, and has been able to let go of anger and rivalries of the past. In this way Joseph breaks the cycle, and his children are able to grow up with a different model of brotherhood.

So what does it mean for us to invoke the sons of Joseph when we bless our sons and our daughters? Not only are we wishing that they will have positive relationships with each other, but in order to fulfil that wish we must bless them through our own contributions to the family dynamic. We need to figure out, as Joseph did, how to stop behaving like  narcissistic teenagers. We need to let go of the past, and not see ourselves as victims. We need to stop perpetuating family dysfunction, and start to build healthy relationships. These are the roots of peace between siblings, and as we work on nurturing them in our own lives, there is hope that they can spread into the community and the world beyond.

Every beginning is an opportunity, and I wish you a healing and healthy 2023.

In fond memory of FPS’s Morris Needleman z”l

[1] “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying:  God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Genesis 48:20

[2] And what about our daughters? We bless them in the names of our Matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel & Leah. But that is a whole other Thought for the Week!

[3] This sermon may be found in:  Women Rabbis in the Pulpit, A collection of sermons, editors Rabbi Dr. Barbara Borts & Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, Kulmus Publishing 2015, pp 322-329.

[4] Genesis 50:21

 

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