“Benefit of the Doubt” is a Jewish Value – Parshat Vayechi 5781

I try not to hold your outbursts against you. What I mean is that everyone has their Jekyll and Hyde moments. It starts as children, when the sweetest child can suddenly grab a toy from another child or scream uncontrollably, seemingly from out of nowhere. Of course these outbursts change as we grow and mature, but they still happen to adults. Something might set you off and cause a sudden and uncharacteristic personality shift. When this happens it can be startling, but I know this temporary emotion is not really you, just as you know it’s not really me. 

It’s only when our actions and our moods – good or bad – become more regular that they start to define us. As bad as misplaced meanness might seem in the moment, there’s a difference between having one bad day and taking it out on someone versus constant yelling or always bullying. In the Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayechi, Jacob teaches us about this difference too.

This week, Parshat Vayechi, which is the final section of text in Sefer Bereshit (Genesis), tells of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph and of their final moments with family. In his final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises in this blessing to tell them what will happen to them in the future, but instead, he actually shares with each child their special gifts and character. 

As Jacob is giving the blessings to each of his children, he is careful to focus on their actions as they relate to who they are. For instance, about Simeon and Levi he says, “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness . . . when angry they slay men.” He doesn’t say that Simeon and Levi are lawless or always angry; he qualifies it. Jacob does this in turn for each of his children. He mentions their behavior, but makes it clear he’s not saying his children are their behavior.

So often in the world our first impressions of someone will color how we perceive them throughout our relationship with them. So if that first meeting is tinted with anger or an off day for some reason, it’s hard to disassociate that experience from them. Seeing someone once on one day isn’t seeing who they truly are the other 364 days of the year.

Appropriately, Vayechi means “and he lived.” It reminds us that our lives are complex and filled with ups and downs. We make poor choices, and we have bad days. However, each of us as a human being is the total of all our actions, not just one action. Dan l’chaf zechut is the Jewish value of giving the benefit of the doubt. Jacob reminds us of this value when describing his sons, and our task is to build a world in which the benefit of the doubt is simply automatic.

Imperfect – Parshat Vayechi 5780

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I’ll never forget the first time Shiri pointed out one of my flaws. This wasn’t the usual innocent jab about my squishy belly or tired bags under my eyes (thanks kids). This was at bedtime a few years ago, when after what was a really rough evening, she said, “Mommy, you’re a villain. You yell, and you’re mean and impatient.” My heart broke, not only because her words sounded so adult coming out of a four-year-old, but because they were true. I had lost my temper, I yelled, and I slammed the door. I certainly wasn’t the best version of myself. And with her teenage years on the way, I’m sure this won’t be the last time she’ll point out how I’ve failed her, but it stung.

The Torah is a prime example of this as we read the final portion in the book of Bereshit. This week, Parshat Vayechi, the final section of text in Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis) tells of the death of Jacob, and later Joseph, and their final moments with their family. In the final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises in this blessing to tell them what will happen to them in the future; but instead, he shares with each child their special gifts and character. 

Jacob is supposed to bless his sons with his vision of the future and their special gifts. The task of this blessing starts off a little rocky as Jacob begins blessing Reuben. Chapter 49, verses 3-4 read, “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace – my couch he mounted!” This doesn’t seem to be much of a blessing as much as it seems like a curse. But perhaps the Torah is reminding us that the greatest blessing is to have someone who cares about you point out your missteps so that you have an opportunity to improve. 

There are things which only those closest to us can say. Just as my then four-year-old demonstrated, those who we love the most are often the ones who see our truest selves. At the same time, Parshat Vayechi also reminds us that Jacob lived on through his children, and it was because of his ability to tell the truth, to hold them up when they had failed, and hold them to their best selves. That too is how we must live: with compassion and honesty, as we bless each other with not only the truth, but with the ability to listen and to change. 

Caring for the Caretaker – Parshat Vayechi 5779

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As we age we go through a variety of stages. We begin life solely dependent on other, older human beings for support, nutrition, care, and other necessities. As we age we gain independence in each of these areas. From learning to hold a cup or fork, to learning to walk, read, and balance a checkbook, we’re on a steady trend of depending less on parents and more on our own ability to lead and navigate the world.

Even into adulthood, there are certain things we turn to our parents for, even though we might not depend fully on them. When I became a mom, for example, I certainly had lots of questions for my mom about parenting. Eventually, there often comes a point when the roles are reversed, and the parent depends on the child for many things. Many elderly parents rely as much or more on their children for the support they once gave to them.

The idea of this role reversal, of parents relying on children, goes as far back as our very own patriarchs in the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis. The text begins with the request of Jacob to not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours. This text ends with Joseph making the request of his kin to bury him back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.

What is remarkable is the ways in which we have seen changes in Jacob and Joseph, as well as in their children. Our text begins with Jacob’s end. Jacob has been cared for by his family for a while now as they made their way down to Egypt, and as his beloved son, Joseph, was the caretaker for all of their society. However, in this moment Jacob voices one final request. Chapter 47, verse 29 has Jacob asking his family to do him the service of burying him in Israel. When the Israelite nation will ultimately leave Egypt, he wants to be buried in his homeland. He asks his child out of steadfast loyalty to make him this promise, and in this moment we see a poignant role reversal of parent and child. And of course, Jacob’s sons agree to “remember him” and carry his bones with them as they leave.

This week’s parshah is truly a circle of life display, and the lesson is that caring for other individuals never stops. Responsibility and compassion never take a holiday; they simply guide our lives differently at different times.

Carry Me With You – Parshat Vayechi 5778

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I have a variety of keepsakes I carry with me on any given day. They remind me of my father, my grandparents, and my kids. I wear my father’s Jewish star every time I’m going through a major life moment. It was around my neck at my rabbinic ordination, as I birthed both of my babies and other milestones I knew he would have wanted to be there for. This star is my way of carrying him with me in those moments. I also wear a piece of jewelry from each of my grandmothers on moments when I want to link my experience to generations past. Every day I wear my engagement ring, which carries a diamond from my husband Duncan’s Bubbe in it. When I have a particularly important prayer moment, I use my Zayde’s siddur from his bar mitzvah. Using these physical items connects me to these loves ones in a tangible way, creating the feeling that they are with me.

The Torah (and our forebears) understood this desire to have physical, tangible reminders of our past carried with us. The first time we see this is this week in our parshah. Parshat Vayechi, the last in the first book of the Torah (Bereshit), teaches us about the ultimate favor asked. The parshah centers around the death of Jacob, the blessings he gives to his grandchildren, and the mourning that the brothers do for their father. It then turns to focus on Joseph mending the final pieces of his relationship with his brothers, but the central focus of our text is the death of Jacob, then later the death of Joseph, and what each one asks of his loved ones before he dies.

In chapter 47, verse 29, it says:

And when the time approached for Israel (Jacob) to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, ‘Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty; please do not bury me in Egypt.’

At the end of the parshah, Joseph makes a similar request of his brothers. Our forefathers valued the past and the people who came before them just as much as we do now, and they looked for ways to carry that past with them to help them face the future. Carrying Jacob’s bones out of Egypt into the promised land was more than just granting a dying man’s wish. This was the Israelite nation carrying with them a reminder of the past and a promise for the future.

We all carry with us pieces of our past, whether physically, emotionally, or both. The true value of these artifacts and heirlooms isn’t just how we remember where we’ve come from, but what we do with it.

Because I Said Snow – Parshat Vayechi 5777

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Snow days. Don’t let the happy, smiling people on Facebook fool you. The snow in Portland has been rough. Parents who work outside the home can only work at home for so long, and kids tend to get restless after two snowball fights and three viewings of Frozen (no, the symbolism is not lost on me).

Here’s the important point, though. As frustrated as we may be by this change in routine, we know school closures are for our own good. Those robo-calls and morning news screen crawls may feel like tiny, stabbing icicles chipping away at our psyches, but of course they are for the right reasons. The safety of students and teachers is clearly the priority, and canceled school days and postponed programs happen because those in charge are looking after our health and wellbeing.

Sometimes we need to hear bad news because it’s for our own good. Because, painful as it is, it’s with our best interests in mind. For example, I recall vividly the time my mom pointed out my ever-encroaching crow’s feet; rest assured, I’ve given my opinion right back plenty of times. If you know our relationship, you know this back and forth comes from a place of love (and occasionally humor). Whether it’s another snow day or a loved one giving an honest critique, we often feel we can be the most honest with and about the ones we love because there is an understanding of trust, care, and concern for wanting the other to be at their very best.

This week we read parshat Vayechi, the final section of text in the first book of the Torah. In this section of text, Jacob requests to his son Joseph not to bury him in Egypt. Then, Joseph brings his sons to receive blessings from their grandfather Jacob. Jacob dies, and as the family mourns, Joseph also requests that his bones be taken with his father’s. The brothers reconcile the final pieces of their differences so they can be at peace in their father’s absence.

The blessing of the children is a tradition continued even today – we do it with our children. Each week on Shabbat we bless our children and share with them an amazing accomplishment we’re proud of or just something that made us smile. Similarly, Jacob’s blessings start out lovely and complimentary as he blesses each of his sons.

However, as he blesses Rueben, Jacob shares “You brought disgrace…” Hold the phone. Disgrace? What kind of a blessing is this? On the surface it sounds like a pretty harsh dig at Reuben’s character, but if we look closer, perhaps this is part of a greater blessing. If intended constructively, having your father, the one who knows you best, point out a glaring fault or misstep is a sign of care, respect, and certainly trust. There is the trust that Reuben will take his words seriously to heart, and there is the respect that prevents Jacob from withholding advice that could make his son a better person if he shared it.

Some people tell us what we want (or think we want) to hear, but is that doing us any good? A few snow days may be inconvenient, but I’ll take the honest, respectful inconvenience over the alternative any day. Who’s up for a snowball fight?