By Shlomo Riskin
“Gather yourselves and listen, O sons of Jacob, listen to Israel your father.” (Genesis 49:2)
Death-bed scenes are usually fraught with tragedy; deep sadness at the specter of a life coming to an end with the inevitable frustrations of thwarted dreams, wrongs not yet righted, potential accomplishments now forever beyond grasp. Even under the best of circumstances, with the individual leaving the world in an advanced age without pain, it must nevertheless remind the onlookers of our mortality, our frailty and vulnerability.
But our Biblical portion is called Vayehi, which literally translates as “and he shall live.” This does not convey an unraveling and unwinding denouement to past reminiscences, but rather an optimistic and uplifting climax to future prophecies. “Death, be not proud;” Angel of Death, be not arrogant! Jacob, who entered the world as a grasping “heel-sneak,” struggling desperately to circumvent and overtake his elder brother, now leaves the world as a triumphant champion of Divine righteousness, Yisra-El. How is it that Jacob – Israel leaves not as one who has “passed away,” but rather as one who still walks within eternity?
The answer to this question is the major message of the Book of Genesis and is clearly expressed in the Talmud: “Jacob our father did not die” (Ta’anit 5b). But, you will argue, the Bible itself records that he died, and was embalmed and is buried in the Cave of the Couples (Ma’arat HaMachpela) in Hebron (Gen 49: 33). No, father Jacob never died. As long as his children, his descendants, live, he still lives.
The leitmotif running through the pages of Genesis is Abraham’s mission to bring compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the world (Gen 18:18, 19). It remains the major goal and responsibility of his progeny to convey that message and its blessings to the next generation – until it is accepted by all of humanity. We are the people of the unfinished symphony – and each purveyor of the music lives on within the music from generation to generation….
Hence, Jacob is called the “chosen” of the Patriarchs; all of his progeny remained within the family of Israel, no one was banished (like Yishmael) or defected from the ranks (like Esau). Jacob is the most precisely delineated of all of the personalities of the Bible; just as he progresses from the one who circumvents and sneaks from behind to the one who confronts honestly and champions (from Ya’akov to Yisrael), so does he mature from the father who is interested only in Joseph to the patriarch who blesses (and honestly evaluates) each of his sons.
This maturation of Jacob was not straightforward. We can readily understand the father’s special feelings for the eldest son of the love of his life (for whose hand in marriage he labored under Laban for 14 years) who then died in the prime of her life.
Moreover, the other brothers hated Joseph – and Jacob most certainly suspected them of foul play when they showed him Joseph’s bloodied tunic, claiming that “wild beasts have torn him apart.” When 22 years later, he discovered that Joseph was alive; he most certainly figured out that, at the very least, they must have commandeered him into Egypt. Jacob even swallowed his furious anger when Reuven slept with his secondary wife, Bilhah – apparently in order to maintain the integrity of the 12 sons- tribes, the unity of the family and continuity of the message. (Gen 35:22)
What enabled father Jacob to be so forgiving – and even forgiving of his beloved Joseph for not having contacted the father who had lavished him with so much love and favor? Apparently, it was because Jacob understood that through his favoritism he was an unwitting accomplice to – indeed, even the main cause of – the dysfunction of the family. At the very least, he would have to forgive his sons (even Reuven, whose immoral act could well be seen as a silent protest by the son who had been rejected as his father’s rightful heir in favor of the more beloved Joseph) if he would ever be able to forgive himself!
It was Jacob’s ability to repent and change himself which enabled him to believe that his sons could and would repent and change themselves. From repentance emerges forgiveness, the special forgiveness fueled by familial unity and love, the Godly forgiveness which the Almighty has for His children and which every parent must have for their children. We must retain under the familial umbrella as many of our children as we possibly can – for it is through our children that we and God’s mission continue to live….
Forgiveness begets forgiveness. The young and arrogant Joseph, who had seen himself – and not God – at the center of his dreams is ultimately able to forgive his brothers. This happens 22 years later — when he learns that we are all subject to God’s plan- and that it was God who planned for him to become Grand Vizier of Egypt in order to save the Abrahamic mission from extinction (Gen 45:4,5). Joseph too understands how his immature hubris engendered his brother’s enmity; he too must forgive them if he is to forgive himself. The leader of the family must unite the family in love and forgiveness!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.