“All good things must come to an end,” wrote Chaucer in the 1380s – and it’s possible he was referencing parashat Va-y’chi when he did. In this week’s parashah we bid farewell not only to the narratives we well know from Genesis, but also to the nuclear family of Jacob as his and son Joseph’s lives meet their respective ends. Yes, it is a time of endings and beginnings as the sun sets on the biblical patriarchs and rises again with Shemot – the earliest tales of our time as slaves in Egypt – next week.
The beauty is in the simplicity of Va-y’chi – it contains a sweet goodbye between a father and the son he once thought he’d lost. “Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So Joseph brought [his sons] close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, ‘I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.’ Joseph then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground.” (Gen. 48:10-12) The patriarch Jacob – he whose earliest tales involve deceit, deception and fleeing from his father’s home, has come full circle. He mirrors the scene that once involved his own ailing father and brother, extending a blessing toward the grandsons he never expected to know. Jacob echoes the actions of years earlier by choosing to bless the younger Ephraim over firstborn Menasseh, sharing with Joseph, “[Menasseh] too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother [Ephraim] shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.’ So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.” (Gen. 48: 19-20)
From this very scene we moderns have adapted the blessing over our children on Shabbat evening, one I vividly remember my father invoking before every family Shabbat dinner: “May God make [our daughters] as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah … May God make [our sons] as Ephraim and Menasseh.” This gesture resonates with even greater power because of the very scene in Va-y’chi from which it was drawn. It is a scene many of us know all too well – a goodbye in the waning hours of a loved one’s life. Instead of speaking words of rebuke – Jacob saves some of them for his other sons – the words shared are those of acceptance and empowerment. In spite of everything that’s happened to their family, Jacob and his beloved Joseph close their chapter with love.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen