Parshat Vayichi introduces a question we’ve all asked at one time or another. What if I had a chance for a ‘do over’ with something in my life? What if I could go back to a moment in the past and live it again so I could do it differently?
The parshah begins with Jacob on his deathbed. We are told he has lived in Egypt for 17 years. It seems like one of those moments that the Torah gives us a detail for the sake of…giving us a detail. Until you remember that Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. In other words, the time of Joseph’s youth, living in Jacob’s home, the time that went so wrong – that same amount of time was gifted back to Jacob in Egypt. Could he make these last 17 years wonderful, to ‘do over’ the first 17 years?
But we see Jacob on his deathbed and we don’t see the wonderful father-son bond that he might have built with Joseph. Jacob tells Joseph to bring his sons for a blessing but then doesn’t recognize those sons when he sees them. When Jacob crosses his hands to bless his grandsons, Joseph tries to correct him and Jacob assures him he knows what he’s doing. There is no heartfelt hugging, no lamenting the years wasted, no tears are shed until that dreaded moment when Jacob slips away. Only after Jacob dies does Joseph break down in grief and you’re left to wonder if the grief is for the lives and opportunities that came and went without connection.
The ‘do over’ never works. Jacob redid the 17 years without being able to change anything. He still looks at Joseph and is reminded of his lost love, Rachel. He so much as says so in his last moments. ‘Do overs’ don’t work because we are still the same people who made the choices we made, so the answer will never lie somewhere in a past event. The key is not to go backwards but to go forwards.
Jacob tells Joseph he will adopt and bless Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menasheh. It is in these last moments of his life that Jacob stops searching for Rachel in every family face and begins to look forward. Joseph is the child who found his world outside of the family. Joseph succeeded in a foreign culture, married a foreign woman and raised foreign children…and he thrived. Joseph is the child who stepped outside of his Judaism because he couldn’t find his place within. While there were moments in Jewish history when that reality would cause parents to disown their children, how interesting that the Torah does not represent that parental choice. Jacob reaches out to the future and tells Joseph that his choice to live outside Judaism need not be extended to his children. Jacob adopts his grandchildren and blesses them with the balance of their two worlds. Their names represent Joseph’s two lives. Menashe is the eldest and his name means thanking God for forgetting the suffering of Jacob’s house. Ephraim is the younger and his name means that God made Joseph fruitful in his new life. One name is negative while one name is positive. One represents the old world and one represents the new. One speaks of a Jewish struggle unresolved while the other speaks of embracing a foreign world of opportunities. Thank God Jacob crosses his arms when he blesses them. He is becoming the conduit that will transfer the positive onto the negative and vice versa. He blesses them with finding the balance of their two worlds.
Jacob is the patriarch we question the most about his family life. His partnering skills, having married two sisters while clearly preferring one, as well as his parenting skills, preferring Joseph so overtly, all make us question his judgment. Yet, in his final moments, he owns all his shortcomings and finally looks to the future. Joseph’s Jewish dilemmas do not define how Jews should look at his children.
Today there are many challenges within the Jewish world. Families are still thrown into turmoil when a child decides their life is more fulfilled outside of their Jewish roots. Often, loved ones will reject the people involved, not only the choice they made. Future generations, future possibilities, everything closed forever because of the pain of the moment. Hours spent wishing for a ‘do over’. But one of Jacob’s eternal strengths is to teach us that it’s never too late. Parenting is never about going back to do it again, it is always about looking at the next step and parenting moments will fill every breath we take, right up to the last one.
The generations that unfold before us are filled with unique individuals who deserve offers of connection at every turn. With all of our concerns about Jacob’s relationship judgment, we continue to bless our sons every Friday night as Jacob did. Our hands rest on their heads and we pray that God should make them like Ephraim and like Menasheh.
We do the same thing with our daughters. Hands on their heads, we pray that God should make them like Rachel and Leah. But Leah was older and she was the first wife. Her name should come first. But, again, Leah lived a negative existence while Rachel was so cherished. We reverse the names of the Matriarchs to bless our daughters with balance. May God help all our children find the balance in their worlds. We thank Jacob for showing us that the ‘do overs’ of our past actually lie in our future choices.