Editor’s Note: This is a guest d’var torah from our partners at Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. You can see more of their resources and contributions here. (For more information, please visit najc.org.)
This portion marks the conclusion of Sefer Bereshit, also known as Genesis. Jacob dies, Joseph dies and an entire generation comes to a close. Yet the portion is called “Vayechi” – And he (Jacob) lived. The narrative is filled not with death but with blessings. In fact, whenever there is an End-of-Life encounter during the Patriarchal narratives of Genesis, there are blessings. Some of the blessings come from God and some from the human Biblical figures. What might they teach us?
Patriarchal blessings have many purposes. Some patriarchal deathbed blessings (such as Isaac’s blessing to Jacob following the “blessing-stealing from Esau” debacle) are meant to convey a positive message to the recipients, much as ethical wills throughout our history have conveyed moral ideas and heartfelt wishes. (For some wonderful examples, see Riemer and Stampher’s Ethical Wills in Judaism, New York: Schocken, 1983). Some of the blessings (such as some of Jacob’s to his children in this Torah reading) are prophetic in nature, (at least in the Midrashic understanding of these blessings). Others (some of Jacob’s other blessings here, such as those to Reuven, Shimon and Levi) can be mildly termed “constructive criticisms.”
Divine blessings require a little more study to understand their intent. What exactly does the Torah mean when it says, for example, that God blessed Isaac (see Genesis 25:11) after Abraham’s death? A most beautiful Talmudic passage (Sotah 14a) sees God’s blessing of Isaac after his father Abraham’s death as the classic model for nihum avelim, comforting the bereaved. “Just as God comforts the bereaved, so too you comfort the bereaved….” say the rabbis. Thus, the heavenly blessing is really a Divine form of gemilut hasadim, pastoral or spiritual care of the mourners that we are bidden to imitate in human form. In essence, God’s presence at times of crisis and sadness can be seen as a comforting blessing. We take our lead from the Holy One by offering our blessings as well to those who suffer loss but are still in life.