This Shabbat, we close out the book of Bereshit/Genesis and begin the book of Melakhim/Kings. While the prophetic books aren’t read in order each Shabbat like the Torah, each haftarah is chosen to complement or reflect a theme that comes up in the Torah reading. Sometimes it’s an obvious connection, other times, not so much.
This week’s Torah reading, Vayechi, means, “and he (Jacob) lived…” Our patriarch Jacob/Israel’s life is coming to a close, and he gathers his sons together to handle some unfinished business. Although the text tells us that his plan is to tell them what the future will bring, he ends up giving them “blessings” that are essentially statements of each of their natures, and not always complimentary. Had the last words either of my parents, of blessed memory, been anything close to what Jacob said, I’d be devastated. Sadly, there are way too many people who leave this world without at least trying to repair relationships.
This isn’t a discussion about always saying “I love you,” or not going to bed angry, it’s about the gift of the time and knowledge to decide what our legacy will be. In the haftarah, which comes from chapter 2 of the first book of Kings, Solomon has succeeded his father David on the throne. David’s life is also coming to an end, and he has instructions for his 18-year old son. The first is to hazakta v’hayita l’ish, “be strong, and be a man,” be a mensch.
The admonition to walk in God’s ways, and to observe God’s commandments comes next, which will presumably ensure the young king’s success. Next comes a list of business that needs to be handled; “be nice to this one, kill that one, and here’s why.”
These passages are most likely our earliest recorded examples of ethical wills, but what Jacob and King David told their sons is much less important than the gift of time each was given–time that allowed them to pass on a legacy. Unlike their ancestors, each man had an illness that let him know, va yikr’vu y’mei Yisrael/David, that his “days (on earth) were closing.” It’s time to prepare the next generation. Our midrash tells us that Jacob asked God for an illness – notice that he was dying – so he would have the time to gather his sons and share his thoughts. Since not everyone gets that opportunity, this is a stark reminder that we need to think about the legacy we want to leave; it’s not just about who gets the house or the diamond ring.
This has been a year of devastating losses for many; so often a trip to the ER was the last time many saw their loved ones, and unlike the Torah and the books of the Prophets, our lives don’t have narrators letting us know what’s coming next. May the new year of 2021 bring health, prosperity, peace and blessing, and with it, the ability to be strong and be a mensch.