Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26
Blessing is not a game of "who's better."
About a decade ago there was a story from Afghanistan that sounded like a joke but was tragically true. The very last two Jews in Kabul, despite all the turmoil that was going on around them, could not find common ground and in fact hated each other. They fought verbally and sometimes physically. Each lived a Jewish life, but did so alone; they even prayed separately.
Last Spring, Sir Clement Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud) passed away. His death was widely mourned in Great Britain; but his own brother, the artist Lucian Freud, did not attend the funeral because of a boyhood dispute over who won a race:
The spat developed into a lifelong estrangement.
One version of the story has Clement leading the race through a public park, only for Lucian to call out: “Stop, thief!” A passer-by apprehended Clement, and Lucian sprinted to the finish line. The location has been variously placed as Vienna, Pimlico and Hyde Park.
What is not in dispute is that the rift apparently remained until Sir Clement’s death. The pair were not believed to have spoken in decades.
“Why on Earth would I want to speak to him or see him again?” said Lucian last year. “I was offered a knighthood but turned it down. My younger brother has one of those. That’s all that needs to be said on the matter.”
The 86-year-old, widely regarded as Britain’s greatest living artist, was not expected to attend the funeral.Anita Singh, Clement Freud died without resolving feud with his brother Lucian, Telegraph.co.uk, April 17, 2009
What is it about a grudge that leaves such deep wounds? We easily forget where we put the keys five minutes ago but cannot shake off a decades old resentment. We all know that such resentments are unhealthy. The world renowned Mayo Clinic has even posted an article to help people let go of grudges.
Even issues that seem to have been resolved keep popping up, especially at times of stress. One such example occurs in parashat Vayechi. Seventeen years after arriving in Egypt, Jacob dies. Seventeen years after reconciling with Joseph, the death of Jacob opens an old wound in the family: When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!" (Genesis 50:15) This despite the evidence all around them: Joseph has given them a home, land, and food. Still they need to hear that he no longer bore them a grudge, and that is what they get. But Joseph said to them, "Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children." Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21)
The brothers' nervousness is understandable given the ongoing pattern of rivalry and resentment in the book of Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. Family conflict appears to date back to Creation. That is why the reference to another set of siblings in this week's parasha is so interesting.
Before his death, Jacob asks to see his grandsons and bestows a blessing on them. Old habits die hard, and he blesses the younger Ephraim before the elder Manasseh, despite Joseph's effort to correct this. But, Jacob knew exactly what he was doing. So he blessed them that day, saying, "By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Genesis 48:20) Surprisingly, there is no reaction from either grandson, and this may be precisely the reason that Ephraim and Manasseh are the names we invoke when we bless our sons.
It is odd that two individuals of whom we know so little are the central figures in this powerful and intimate ritual that many of us perform at the beginning of Shabbat.
Why Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps because they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land. Or perhaps because they were the first brothers in the Bible to get along peaceably … Now that siblings have learned to get along, the story of the Jewish people can move to the next stage.Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, David L. Lieber, senior ed., p. 298
The next stage in our development will be made clear next week when we begin the second book of the Torah. Moving from Breishit (Genesis) to Shmot (Exodus) is a shift from individual and family to community and nation. The leadership that arises in Shmot also consists of siblings, but they protect each other and work together nurturing a nation towards freedom. The blessing God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh invokes a sense of "we," rather than "me."
In our self-esteem drenched society we tend to confuse praise with blessing. Our children end up with a sense of personal entitlement and little else. The words of the traditional blessings God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh (or: God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah) take our children off the pedestal and place them within community. Blessing is not a game of "who's better"; it is encouragement to reach our God-given potential as human beings. Your entire family can be saved from starvation, welcomed with open arms by a long-lost sibling and you can still convince yourself he will knife you in the back. You can be one of the last of your people and imprison yourself. You can be successful beyond your wildest dreams and still be enslaved by a childhood incident. Or you can strive to be like Ephraim and Manasseh: When rivalries and resentment dissipate, you find that you are no different than the object of your anger. Only then, together, can you begin the long, slow march to freedom.
Hazak, hazak, ve-nit'hazek (may we go from strength to strength) and Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Michal Shekel