In this week's portion, Vayechi, we begin with the death of Jacob and end with the death of Joseph. Jacob blesses Joseph's sons with sweet words, and then he offers parting words to all of his own sons. Some of those parting words are more like curses than like blessings. What must it have been like to be one of the sons who received stinging rebuke from his dying father?
I'm reminded of my beloved grandfather who became sometimes anxious and paranoid as he neared death. He could easily become convinced of terrible things (for instance, that another family member was making a pass at his wife) and at this times he made accusations which we all knew weren't true.
When those episodes arose, all we could do was gently try to reassure him that he was mistaken, and shower him with love, and forgive him the things he had said. We knew that the man he had been when he was fully alert would never have said those things. No one held those moments against him. I've seen this with others, as well. A woman grows old and begins to lose track of things and, frantic, accuses her daughters of stealing her silver. Or her caregivers. Or a spouse who is long-gone...
When Jacob spoke harshly to some of his sons as he lay dying, was he fully aware that these would be his last words to them -- that this anger was what they would remember of their father when he was gone? Were his assessments of his sons accurate, in that moment of extremis? (For instance, his accusation that Reuven had "mounted his bed," which is to say, had made a pass at Jacob's wife?) Granted, some of the sons may have deserved his harshness -- I'm thinking of Simeon and Levi, who chose to slaughter the entire tribe of Shechem in the story of Dinah. But even if the angry words were deserved, was this really the time to speak them? I wonder what was the impact of these words on those men as their father prepared to die.
Reading Vayechi this year, I wonder what it would take for us to forgive Jacob / Israel for his flaws and his errors. He played favorites with his sons, as his father and grandfather had done before him. And given the opportunity to say goodbye to his sons and to give all of them a final blessing, words of hope for the lives they may yet lead, he doesn't speak with compassion to all of his sons. How might it change this story for us if we imagine Jacob, at that moment, as not-entirely-tethered to reality -- like those we have known who have been prone to flights of paranoia in their elder years? How might we change our own stories of how we relate to those we love who are dying -- and how we relate to those we love when it is our time to say goodbye?
I initially posted this alongside a request for help in figuring out who had painted this illustration. Thanks to Barbara and to Sam Steinmann, both of whom left comments / emailed me indicating that the artist is Harry Anderson.
Other years' commentary on Parashat Vayechi: