Parents, what’s your bedtime routine? A story, a song, a hug from a certain stuffed animal? This week the Torah teaches us the importance of closure.
As 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.
“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.