As we say goodbye to 2020, it’s obvious that the events of this past year have served to make it a defining point in our lives, a dividing line (in ways that will only continue to be revealed) between pre-2020 life and our post-2020 world. As we march forward into 2021, we work to understand – both as individuals and as a society – the meaning and implications of so many significant events that took place in such a relatively short period of time.
In studying this week’s parashah with Rabbi Mark, I found guidance and help engaging in this process of meaning-making. Vayechi is the final portion of the book of Genesis, with the narrative continuing to focus on Jacob, Joseph, and the rest of Jacob’s sons. The name Vayechi is drawn from the opening verse (“Jacob lived in Egypt…”), but what looms over and drives many aspects of the story is Jacob’s impending death. This awareness – that his life is coming to an end – impacts the whole family and contributes to each of them acting out in old, destructive ways. As they continue to distrust one another, some engage in controlling or avoidant behaviors and others in deception and manipulation.
The parashah reflects the messiness of living and affirms that we don’t always deal with tough situations in healthy ways. However, we can also see that each of the main characters has significantly matured – not just gotten older, but become a better person. Vayechi speaks to our ability to rise above our worst tendencies – to grow and transform – reminding us again that change is possible and that the potential for reconciliation and healing is real.
Jacob is on his deathbed. He gathers all his sons together and speaks openly to them.
And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father…” (49:1-2).
He continues to speak to them, addressing each son in turn, rebuking several for their past behaviors (and leaving nothing to the imagination!), while blessing others for being upright and righteous. His words are honest and raw, which is quite the step forward for Jacob, who has struggled all his life to be transparent and honest.
Whether it was stealing the blessing from his brother Esau or showing favoritism towards Joseph over the rest of his sons, all the lives he touched had been stained by his selfishness. Nonetheless, at the end of his life, he was willing to be transparent with himself and his loved ones. I read this openness to be honest and real, a gift he’s willing to give to his sons (even to the ones who may not have liked what he had to say). Jacob has grown and changed. But how? What happened? What shifted within Jacob that he was able to be honest? We continue reading:
All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him (49:28).
Speaking to each of them in a way “appropriate to the son” required Jacob to meet them where they were, to surrender his own agenda and to accept “what is” with each of them (rather than what he needed or wanted there to be).
Surrendering to “what is” can be a continual and on-going challenge for all of us. Yet, when I’m willing to take myself out of the equation and, even more, to connect with the Holiness of a situation, I’m able be in better harmony with G!D’s world, which is reality – and not confined to mine, which is often unpleasantly at odds with reality. This shift provides me with a pathway forward toward joy and growth and contentment rather than having to stay stuck in continual frustration and misery.
As we continue to reflect on the events of 2020 – working to understand its meaning – it’s inevitable that we’ll focus on how we were separated from friends and loved ones, that we’ve become isolated and disconnected from much of what had been “normal.” This past year has provided so many ways for us to distract ourselves, so many reasons to excuse ourselves from accepting life on life’s terms! At the same time, we can also appreciate this past year as an experience which helped to clarify what’s really important in our lives.
Taking a lesson from Jacob, we can move forward starting from a place of acceptance of ourselves and others, as we and they are. By choosing to live (and live into) “what is,” and by choosing to see in a wider, Holier context, we can enter 2021 with a clearer sense of purpose and a willingness for continued growth.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!