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.

Uniquely You – Parshat Vayechi 5775

baby-name-blessingAs a parent, I found choosing a name for our sweet baby to be overwhelming.  We knew we wanted to name her after my father with an “s” name and after Duncan’s grandmother, with an “a” name.  We knew we wanted a name that was filled with meaning.  But then came the question: “What if the name we give her is not reflective of who she is?”  We named her Shiri (“my song”), but what if she has no interest in singing later in life?  We explained at her naming that we also blessed her with the characteristics of those she’s named for so we could expect her to grow up to be like them, but time will tell how well her name expresses who she becomes.

As we know throughout the first book of the Torah, names play an important role in telling us the stories of our forefathers.  We start with Abraham and Sarah, who go through name changes that describe the great nation they will help build.  Isaac receives his name because of the laughter his parents shared at the amazement of his conception.  Jacob gets his first name from holding his brother’s heel at birth and receives a second name after an encounter with God.  These names teach us about the people who carry them as much as they identify who they are in a crowd.

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

When the children were given their names earlier in the narrative, their names represented how they came into the world and who their parents hoped they would be.  In the end, we learn that parents don’t really have prophecy into who their children will be.  As these children grew, their father recognized that they might represent the characteristics entailed by their birth name, but they also have other blessings to share with the world.

As parents, this parshah reminds us that it is our responsibility to recognize these changes and growth in our children too.  We can name them in honor of loved ones and pray that they carry those character traits with them, but we should also recognize the beautiful, funny, creative individuals our children grow into as they experience our world.  Their individuality is the greatest blessing we can give them.

The Ultimate Mitzvah – Parshat Vayechi 5774

“Could you do me a favor?”  They are probably some of the most dreaded words in the English language.  It only takes the first few syllables before you begin coming up with a list of excuses to get out of the task.  On the flip side, the asker also has something at stake.  Besides the guilt of imposing on a friend’s busy schedule, there’s the realization that at some point you might ask them the same question and they’ll be indebted to you to say yes.  A helping hand can mean the world, but it places a burden on both parties.

The Torah is filled with favors – people helping each other out to get something accomplished.  Think about Abraham buying land for burial or asking Sarai to pretend to be his sister; these are favors that help solve problems for Abraham and Sarah. Joseph interpreting a dream for Pharaoh began as a favor and led to hisgreatness and promotion.

Our parshah this week, parshat Vayechi, the last in the first book of the Torah, Bereshit, teaches us about the ultimate favor asked.  The parshah is centered around the death of Jacob, the blessings he gives to his grandchildren, and the mourning that the brothers do for their father.  It then takes a turn and focuses on Joseph mending the final pieces of his relationship with his brothers.  But the central focus of our text is thedeath of Jacob, 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 to his brothers.

When Jacob makes this request, he uses the words Chesed v’emet, which I have translated above to mean steadfast loyalty, but they also mean in their most literal sense “true kindness.”  Jacob and Joseph both ask a favor at the endof their lives.  Of course this is adifferent kind of favor.  It isn’t picking up the kids at school or covering a class.  This favor is one that they have no intention of ever paying back to those who perform it for them.  A mitzvah of true kindness is one that has no reciprocal favor anticipated.  This text asserts that one of the only mitzvot that can be defined this way is caring for the dead.  In this case, those who uphold Jacob’s and Joseph’s request understand that there is no tangible reward for this favor.

But the parshah also reminds us that perhaps we shouldn’t wait until our loved ones are gone to fulfill this level of mitzvah, to do something without the expectation of reward or reciprocity.  The name of our parshah, Vayechi, means “and he lived.” Favors can be good, but often come with the expectation of a return.  This Shabbat imagine what it would be like to live in a world where each action was done for its own purpose, not because of what you receive in return, and then challenge yourself to act with chesed v’emet, ultimate kindness.