Friday, December 28, 2012

A Thought on the Parsha


Parshat VaYechi

I'd like to share with all of you a slightly edited version of a
beautiful piece written by my wife, Devorah Zlochower, and
delivered by her as the Shabbat Sermon when she served as
Scholar-in-Residence at the Young Israel of Hillcrest in 2009.

When I was a little girl, one of the things I looked forward to on Friday night was my father giving each of us a berakhah. I come from a large family; I am the oldest of 8 children and berakhot on Friday night were quite a production as each one of us stepped up in age order to receive our berakhah. My father is an interesting blend. He is a graduate of Torah V’Daas and a research scientist, and he is both a traditionalist as well as an innovator. This was reflected in the berakhot he gave to his children.

The traditional formula of this parental blessing comes, in part, from this week’s parshah. Yaakov blesses Yosef’s two sons, Menasheh and Efraim saying: “Through you shall Israel bless; may God make you as Efraim and Menasheh.” (48:20)  For girls, Yaakov’s blessing to Efraim and Menasheh has been altered (my father is not the only innovator): “May God make you like our foremothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah.”

The giving of parental blessing begins with Yitzhak’s blessing to Yaakov and this beautiful idea has become custom for many parents who bless their children on Friday nights or on Erev Yom Kippur.

My father had his own additions to the traditional berakhot. For each of my four brothers, in addition to invoking Efraim and Menasheh, he would add the Biblical namesake of the child. So, my brother Yehoshua received a berakhah of May God make you like Efraim and Menasheh and like Yehoshua, student of Moshe. My brother Yossi should grow up to emulate Yosef the Tsaddik, Dovid was to be like King David and Avrumi, Avraham Avinu.

But for the girls, 4 of us, he went all out. Esther was told not only to be like our mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rahel and Leah but she should also save her people like Queen Esther. Elisheva was to emulate Elisheva, wife of Aharon the Kohen who raised 4 priestly sons (she, by the way, has 6 priestly sons), and Adena was to merit life in Gan Eden before the sin. I was to emulate my namesake and do nothing less than merit the Divine Presence and prophecy itself like Devorah the Prophet.

What was my father doing? He was giving us a message. While we are all actually named for family members, we should also see ourselves as connected to our Biblical forebearers. They should be our models and as they accomplished great things in the world in birthing the Jewish nation, we too, in our own ways should set our sights high – we too should strive to accomplish great things and live a life of meaning not just for our selves but for Am Yisrael as well.

Blessings are not just blessings; they are dreams, visions of the future, fanciful or otherwise. In the case of parents, they may reflect the parent’s ambitions for the child or the parent’s own ambitions. They may tell us more about the bestower of the blessing, and his or her perceptions, than about the character or dreams of the recipient.

I was thinking about this point as I was reading this week’s parshah especially Yaakov’s blessings to his sons. In fact, it is really incorrect to call them blessings as they are quite a mix. They contain character analyses, predictions of future behavior as well as standard blessings for safety and material wellbeing.

In fact, Yaakov opens his final speech to his sons without any mention of the word berakhah at all. The Torah tells us: “And Yaakov called to his sons and said: Gather and I will tell to you that which will occur to you at the end of days.” (49:1).  What is Yaakov’s intent? What is it he is planning on telling his sons? Rashi, based on the gemara in Pesahim (56a) says:

Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of days, to prophesize the coming of the Messiah. But God did not desire this and withdrew God’s presence.

Thus, deprived of the power of prophecy, Yaakov was forced to speak of other matters, namely his blessings.

I would like to suggest another interpretation. “End of days” in this verse does not refer to the End of Days, to Messianic times, rather, “Yaakov wanted to reveal the end of days” means that Yaakov wanted to make predictions of the future. Not a prediction of the Messiah’s arrival but a prediction of his sons’ future based on their past behaviors. Come close I am going to tell you what your future will be. This is what his message to his sons was.

For some of his sons he predicts a rather inglorious future. Shimon and Levi, who slew the entire male population of Shekhem to avenge their sister’s honor, are cursed. “Cursed be their anger for it is strong, I will divide them among Jacob and spread them among Israel.” (49:7). These two brothers in arms are dangerous, violent and aggressive. They are to be spread out among their brethren, never to claim tribal lands of their own.

Are these statements of Yaakov good predictors of the future? Is the future moored in the past – subject to the consequences of earlier misdeeds?

One way of answering this question is to examine the blessings of Yaakov in comparison with the blessings Moshe gives the tribes before his death. Like Yaakov before him, Moshe too wishes to impart a final message and his blessing to the children of Israel. Moshe too blesses the descendents of those sons of Yaakov.

When we look at the berakhot of Moshe we see some similarities as well as some striking differences. Although Levi is cursed in Yaakov’s final testament. Moshe’s message is quite different.

They shall teach Yaakov, the nation, the laws and your Torah to Israel. They place incense before You and burnt offerings on your altar. (Devarim 33:10)

Moshe’s image of Levi is quite different; they are the servants of God in the Mishkan and later in the Mikdash.

But there is a common theme in Yaakov’s and Moshe’s statements about Levi. The same anger that Yaakov saw as dangerous is seen by Moshe as meritorious.

Levi, who said to his father and mother, “I did not see them”, he did not recognize his brothers and his sons he did not know, for he, Levi, guarded Your word, God, and Your covenant they kept. (Devarim 33:9)

It is Levi’s joining cause with Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf, killing the transgressors, that ultimately earns them the right to serve God in the Temple. The “anger” that Yaakov so despised– cursed is their anger for it is strong - now becomes the incense brought to God’s face.

We are not meant to be trapped by our past. The very basic notion of teshuvah rails against this. As we are told in the gemara in Yoma (86b): “Teshuvah is so great that even transgressions committed willfully can become merits.”

Those same qualities and personal characteristics which we may feel condemn us to continuously repeat our mistakes, we have the power to harness them for good. For ultimately, our fate, our destiny is in our own hands. Blessings are nice, but it is we who create our future.

Perhaps this is the intent of the very first berakhah given to humankind. When God says to Adam: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Take mastery of the fish of the seas, the birds of the heaven, the animals and all the beasts that roam the land” (Breishit 1:28) - this is a mighty, mighty blessing. We are being given proprietorship over God’s just created world. Will we be good stewards or vanquishing conquerors? Will we master and harness all the energy and power that God has bestowed to our earth or will we lay it waste? Will we achieve our potential prominence or will we squander it? Will we be masters or slaves? We have the potential to be both; God has given us the choice. God hopes, as our parents hope that we choose good – that we exercise good judgment, that we achieve our potential and that we live a life of blessing.

So how do we give blessings as parents? What did my father’s blessing mean to me? Well, it is complicated. On the one hand it made me feel pretty powerful. I have always felt very blessed to carry the name Devorah. On the other hand, the bar got set very high; nothing less than communion with the Divine would suffice. We need to both communicate to our children our confidence in them while at the same time making sure we can separate our own feelings, our own goals and dreams and free them to pursue their own. I am mindful of this every day when I look at my two boys and I hope and pray that they achieve their own potentials, that they feel supported to pursue their own dreams and that they feel the power of the blessing of a parent everyday.
Shabbat shalom