Imperfect – Parshat Vayechi 5780


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


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


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


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?

What Christmas Looks Like – Parshat Vayechi 5776

What Christmas Looks Like

As a rabbi, I’m always studying religious customs and traditions – it comes with the job. And this time of year, it’s hard not to notice Christmas. It probably comes as no surprise that Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and bargains like “Happy Honda Days” weren’t part of the Christmas celebrations of two thousand years ago. What is fascinating is that the Christmas holiday of the 1800s to the present bears no resemblance to what church officials established around the fourth century C.E.

For the first few hundred years after the death of Jesus, only Easter was celebrated; there was no such thing as Christmas. Once it was determined that Jesus’s birth would also be commemorated, church leaders decided to create a winter holiday that would draw on popular customs of various solstice celebrations. Historians believe the drunken revelry was actually similar to the Mardi Gras of today. Then in the 17th century, Puritan orthodoxy had no tolerance for this type of behavior, and Christmas was even outlawed for two decades in Boston.

It wasn’t until the mid 1800s when Christmas was recreated as a family-centered holiday of warmth and peace, a facelift credited in part to the works of two writers, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Although the “reason for the season” (as the catchy saying goes) has not changed, the celebration itself is completely unrecognizable from its origin.

This stark contrast is by no means unusual to holidays or even to us as individuals. Even as human beings, we go through changes during our lives that can leave us unrecognizable to those who may have known us long ago. We change in physical appearance and also in our behavior and temperament.

This week we read parshat Vayechi, the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis.  The text begins with Jacob’s request that he not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours.  This text ends with Joseph making a similar request that he be buried back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.  What is notable about this culmination of several narratives is how Jacob and Joseph have changed over time and how they have remained the same.  Chapter 48, verse 8 finds us with Jacob giving a final blessing to Joseph’s sons.  He asks the same question his father asked of him when he came for a blessing: “Who are these?”

In this déjà vu moment of uncertainty, Ephraim and Menashe are unrecognizable to their grandfather. Perhaps this is because Jacob’s vision, like Isaac’s, had begun to fail, and he didn’t want to make the same mistake his father made. Or perhaps he failed to recognize Ephraim and Menashe because they had been born and raised in Egypt and thus had become indistinguishable from Egyptian youth. In either case, the boys appeared to have changed, and this was unnerving to their grandfather.  

The boys respond with the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel,” which of course has a double meaning since they are speaking to Jacob, Israel. This is their own way of saying that even though they may look like Egyptians, they affirm the same God as their father and grandfather.  What was inside them remained the same even if they looked physically different.

Some life changes leave us looking different, but staying ourselves on the inside. Other changes rock us so hard that we are never the same. In the case of Christmas, it might be a little of both. The celebration might be vastly different from its beginnings, but like we hear from Ephraim and Menashe, it’s up to those who celebrate to call out and remind those whose vision isn’t what it used to be that there’s a purpose bigger than any of us. It’s just not always easy to recognize.