As “The People of the Book,” we should know how to end a book. Vayechi is the end of the first book in our Book of Books, in our canon. Vayechi concludes Bereshit, the first book in the Torah. The parsha begins with “Vayechi Yaakov,” “and Jacob lived. ” Just as the entire Torah will end with the death of Moses but with an overall message of how Moses will live on with us forever, Vayechi gives us a foretaste of that by teaching us about how Jacob will die in this chapter but one of the ways Jacob will live on with us forever. Just as the passage teaching the death of Sarah was Chayeh Sara, the life of Sara, so, too, here, “and Jacob lived” tells us how Jacob died … but how he, too, lives on in us.
Let’s begin by rewinding the tape one week, to Vayigash, last week’s parsha. After 22 years of separation, Joseph and his brothers take the opportunity to reconnect and Joseph and his father take the opportunity to reconnect. Both situations are different, but both situations are successful.
Joseph’s brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. After becoming a stranger in a strange land, Joseph figured out how to be successful there, one profound lesson for all of us thrust into strange lands. Joseph rose to a leadership position and controlled grain his brothers needed in a famine. Rather than prolonging the grudge, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and helps with the food. In last week’s parsha, and in this week’s parsha, Joesph continues his doubts about whether his brothers will continue to seek revenge or not, softened though the doubts may be. Reconciliation from estrangement had a start. You’ve got to start somewhere.
Jacob, the patriarch here, has a different story. Jacob was cut off from his son Joseph by two layers of deception. First, there was the clinging to an old tradition that the patriarch would give a special blessing to only the first born. Joseph tricked his father, Jacob, into giving him this blessing by taking advantage of Jacob’s worsening eyesight and wearing disguised clothing. Jacob received the birthright blessing but had the trials of revenge by his brothers and exile. The second layer of deception on how Jacob was cut off from his son, Joseph, is the punishment of a fancy term we use called “ambiguous loss” (see Minnesota Professor Pauline Boss’s writing on this). Jacob is deceived into thinking his son, Joseph, had died by touching a coat of Joseph’s covered with goats’ blood, sensing his son Joseph had been torn to shreds by animals.
Last week, Joseph rejoices that his father, Jacob, is still alive and this week, Jacob, the father, learns that this son Joseph, is still alive. They will both die in this parsha, but they will both die with what we like to call “at peace,” because these major conflicts and frustrations have been resolved and the brothers are at least on a path for reconciliation and growing trust, we pray.
A major lesson in this parsha, often overlooked, I feel, is a lesson on how to repent, how to take actions toward repentance. When we teach morals and ethics, especially to children and to grandchildren, often we turn to a three-step instruction: a) apologize, b) promise not to do that again and c) when the next opportunity comes to do something like that again, do what you should have done in the first place, do the right thing.
In recovery therapy, this is taught in the form of a proverb, ”Do the next right thing. ” Credit for the phrase goes to two years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, which adopted it, back to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, one of the founders of modern psychiatry, in a letter he wrote December 15, 1933. Jung wrote, “If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious.”
Part of the tsuris (Yiddish for aggravating trouble) in this part of the Torah started when Jacob followed the tradition prevalent at that time of favoring one child over another, in this case, through transferring a birthright blessing to whom he assumed was the first born.
Grandparenting provides us with opportunities not to make the same mistakes we made as parents. It does not prevent us from making new mistakes.
Now, at the end of Jacob’s life, he has the opportunity to bless his two grandsons, Manasseh and Ephraim, sons through Jacob, where he created problems in blessing children by showing favoritism. This time, Jacob blesses his two grandchildren equally. He also elevates them to the status of his own sons, by making them the heads of tribes within Israel.
To this day, as we gather in our homes on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath with candles, challah and Kiddush, there is a separate blessing for the sons and a separate blessing for the daughters. The blessing for the sons is, “May G-d inspire you to live in the tradition of Ephraim and Menasheh, who carried forward the life of our people.” (Gates of the House, 1977)
We end Parsha Vayechi on a good note because it is a requirement of our faith to bring passages to a close on a good note. Rabbi Moses Isserles (16th Century CE) taught the following commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the major code of Jewish law and practice: “One should aim to always begin reading an aliyah on a good note and end reading it on a good note as well.”
The end of this collection of aliyot, this parsha, is the end of the first book of the Torah. We celebrate that moment also. The custom in Ashkenazic communities is that, at the conclusion of each of the Five Books of Moses, the congregation stands and calls out “Chazak, chazak, venit chazek!” (“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strong!”), and then the one reading the Torah repeats that phrase. In most Sephardic congregations the custom is to say “Chazak ubaruch” (“Be strong and blessed!”) at the conclusion of every aliyah to the Torah.
May you be strengthened as we move from one book of the Torah to the next, and always remember to return to it whenever you need it because, in the Talmud (Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Fathers/Ancestors, 5:26), Ben Bag-Bag taught, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it…”
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.