Torah Portion: Parashat Vayechi - January 6, 2012
When a patriarch or matriarch of the family dies, there are different levels of transition. In the life cycle the preparation for the funeral takes center stage and the family comes from all over to participate and plan the funeral service. People are usually on their best behavior. The children are reflecting and pulled between comforting the surviving parent and, depending on their age, attending to their children too. The rituals of the service and the shiva that follows plays a powerful role in giving the family and the community an opportunity to pay respects to the family, testify to the best qualities of the deceased and begin to find a sense of healing. The service transforms the deceased into state of mind from a state of being. Rituals help us canonize our beloved ones into our memory as well as to the communal memory. One would think that would be enough emotional turmoil, but, there may be many more complex and conflicting emotions as well as unresolved issues that even a funeral and shiva cannot bring closure to in this period of mourning. That is exactly where the impact upon the children and the extended family is most acute. It is at these moments when we are all redefining our place not only inside ourselves but in relation to the rest of the family members.
The torah portion is exactly where we find these kinds of issues playing themselves out with the advent of the death of Jacob. Rather than a time for coalescing the children of Jacob in total unity, the emotional climate in this Genesis story is volatile. Rabbinical commentaries are looking to see through the story whether the past can resolve itself or whether the death of Jacob will trigger past conflicts and tear a part the tribes of the sons of Jacob. What do the rabbis see? Furthermore what can we learn from the tense moments and underlying suspicions that surface in the Torah portion that can shed some light between families struggling with the death of a patriarch or matriarch? A strong foundation in the future for our children and grandchildren requires parents and especially grandparents to be transparent not only about their wills but also about values.
The truth is that in the Torah portion there were tensions and fears percolating beneath the surface that revealed many long term resentments between the children and with Jacob himself. Even the text of the Torah tells us that after Jacob’s death, the brothers were afraid that Joseph would slay them all in revenge for their selling him into indentured servitude. The Torah teaches that people are the same in the ancient or contemporary world when it comes to grieving. In other words rivalries and jealousies will always exist and parenthetically, people have the capacity to rise to the occasion and they can, on the other hand, regress to an embittered side of themselves.
Tonight we are reading the final Torah portion, Vayechi, in the book of Genesis. Let’s remember that Joseph had brought the entire family to Egypt. He has revealed himself to his stunned brothers as the second most powerful man of Egypt next to Pharaoh himself. He has taken no vengeance even though his brothers live in fear that at any minute he might do so. But they know that Joseph will not hurt them as long as their father Jacob lives. By chapter 50, Jacob has blessed all the children and given them his patriarchal message. It is now time to return him to the cave of Machpelah in Hebron to be buried alongside his father and mother Isaac and Rebecca and his wife Leah and grandparents Sarah and Abraham. Imagine the scene of everyone gathered together at the cave. Joseph has received permission from Pharaoh to escort his father’s body back to their homeland of Canaan.
This situation is not altogether different from modern day families who come together to bury a parent. They will put on their best face on in front of the community. And many times there are families who have worked out their issues and the funeral can be an opportunity to build stronger bonds in an extended family.
Unfortunately, the rabbinical stories sense that this moment of burial in the Torah was full of latent fears and old unsettled accounts that threatened to destroy the unity of the tribes of Jacob.
Let me give you a brief flavor from the Talmud of this family’s issues. In one Midrash the sages tell us that once the word of Jacob’s death became public, Esau and his clan came, the progeny of Ishmael, and the children of Abraham’s second wife Keturah all attended. Their purpose was to make war upon Jacob’s children for all the injustices their parents experienced.
In one episode from the Talmud, Esau saw that there was an extra burial space opened available since Rachel was buried outside of Bethlehem. Esau said that he wanted that space next to his father for himself. They text of the aggadah describes the story of the verbal altercation between Esau and his nephews. They refuse to let him have the plot for himself claiming that he sold his birthright to Jacob long ago. Acknowledging this fact, Esau still insists that they show him the bill of sale for the entire burial property that Abraham purchased years before from Ephraim the Hititte. This family feud ends up delaying the funeral. The brothers are about to send Naphtali back to Egypt to retrieve the bill of sale for the cave . At that point one of the sons of Dan, Hushim became so angry at the idea of delaying the burial and it being an insult to their grandfather takes a club and strikes Esau on the head so hard that his eyes popped out. At that very moment, the sages say, Jacob opened his eyes and smiled. They then buried him immediately.
One final story was the moment when sons of Jacob had arrived back to Canaan. The brothers watched Joseph go over to the pit where they had originally thrown him when he was a youth. The brothers said, “Surely he will take his revenge against us!” But Joseph did no such thing. As he stood and remembered those days, he invoked a blessing that they had survived and thanked God for all the good in his life. Needless to say the fear from their actions against Joseph’s was real and palpable inside the brothers. This is not an exactly harmonious family situation.
This is not what we like to think about when imagining our ancestor Jacob’s burying our revered patriarch Jacob. And yet is it all that foreign to us when we are talking about the here and now? Whether it is money or family heirlooms, the death of a parent is a time of delicate emotions even in the best of situations. How many people do we know who have estranged relationships with their parents, children and siblings? Yes, we live our daily lives without focusing on old jealousies or hurts but these ritual moments of life transitions raise to the surface all kinds of issues that can distract us from focusing on the meaning of a loved one’s life. We can see from this story in Genesis that issues were not worked out and while time passes people deal with their issues differently. Some can get over the past and others do not.
What also exacerbates these issues today is the geographic reality that families are increasingly spread out all over the country and the world. It becomes harder to work out issues from childhood and move on. The challenge, nevertheless, is when unresolved hurts or conflicts fester over years which mean it becomes harder to resolve them and the time of a funeral is a difficult time to make shalom even if we look united on the outside.
Today we have so many social medium available to keep us in touch with relatives, and, therefore, more opportunities to make amends. The question is whether we have the will to do so? Truthfully I have witnessed all too many episodes of family members either unwilling or simply afraid how to go about making peace with family members.
Building trust with family is an ongoing process and one that requires us to take the time to keep up with family and make an extra effort to get together. Even learning how to communicate with our children about the contents of the will and removing the doubts and questions about who gets what is, in my estimation, an important part of the process of keeping the family together after a parent passes. Transparency is critical when grandparents are thinking about the long term of the well being of children and grandchildren.
I have learned from others that preparing for one’s death and sharing our plans with the children is the best way to create a pathway for the future that our children and grandchildren will remember us maintain civil and even warm relations between themselves. But the best way to avoid issues like what we saw at the end of life is to work on them now.