By Rabbi David Levin
In the hit musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr aches to be in the room where it happens. The song contextualized two focal learning points of Parshat Vayechi: Like Aaron Burr, not everyone is in the room where it happens and, even if you are there, you may not like what you hear.
Both of these are critical complications to the classic story of Jacob offering blessings on his deathbed and offer profound lessons for us. Vayechi asks us to consider the following:
What do you have to say, to whom and why?
Vayechi has me thinking more deeply about these questions and how they affect me. This relationship with the text is meaningful because the Torah’s actual value is in how it relates to us, to stories helping us to reflect and to live more meaningfully, including what we leave behind as our legacy. Vayechi is Jacob’s deathbed scene. He gathers his sons and two grandsons Menashe and Ephraim, to offer final words. The Midrash helps us understand Jacob’s motivation:
Genesis Rabbah shares as Jacob prepares for death; he gathers his sons and Joseph’s children around him to offer final thoughts and blessings. Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) wonders if his life was worthwhile and if his children embraced the lessons of the One God to be carried forward to the next generations.
The sons proclaim, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad,” poetically translated, “Listen, father, we embrace the lessons of Adonai.” Upon hearing this, Jacob declares with his final breath, “Blessed be His Name — My children have learned and embraced the most important thing I tried to teach them.” Jacob dies knowing his life had a purpose; it has been “for a blessing.”
And indeed, it has, but is this the only message Jacob leaves behind? Unfortunately, in reality, it is more complicated than this somewhat romanticized retelling of our Patriarch’s end. What Jacob says to those who are in the room is pretty telling. But, we also must ask what his purpose was?
As noted, Jacob’s 12 sons and two grandsons are in the room. But his daughter Dinah is not present. Her absence creates questions for us as to why was she excluded, particularly in light of the effect the trauma of her rape had on two of her brothers and the “blessing” left for them.
The final words are powerful. Can one temper the harshness of din, judgment, with rachamim, compassion?
Once Jacob dies, there is nothing left to say. Jacob’s assessment of Shimon and Levi, as well as Reuven carries with them; there is no redemption in their father’s eyes, which can be too weighty a burden. Could Jacob have found a way to help them find a path toward teshuva? Perhaps Jacob could even offer forgiveness to those who have strayed so far and disappointed so profoundly. For this was more than a gentle, loving rebuke, a tochecha, this was a harsh judgment.
As noted, Dinah is not present at this intimate hour of reconciliation and death. Dinah, the rape victim, is not in the room. This assault was the pretext for slaughtering an entire group in alleged revenge.
Such trauma notwithstanding, what is the effect of being left out of such a momentous occasion as her father’s final goodbye? How would it feel to be omitted from such a critical moment in family life, effectively marginalized, unseen and unheard?
Many writers have tried to grapple with the biblical text and the implications for a Judaism that is supposed to embrace everyone but here falls far short. Learned rabbis, historic and contemporary, have tried to reconcile Jacob’s words.
In “The Torah, A Women’s Commentary,” Rabbi Laura Geller understands the omission of daughters from blessing as the opportunity to consciously include them in our prayers for our daughters to be their best versions of themselves.
The graciousness of this reading of our text reframes the pain of exclusion into something profound and beautiful. This reimagining teaches us to be more thoughtful in proactive ways to make even the difficult things received as constructive and caring.
Jacob concludes with his desired funeral arrangements, asking to be buried with the ancestors in the cave of Machpelah. His last breaths are instructions for his sons to carry out Jacob’s wishes. These directives give everyone there the opportunity to fulfill their filial obligation and to honor their father, focusing on this final act, regardless of the complicated relationships that might have existed.
Like Jacob’s, our final words are profoundly powerful. They can be among the most influential things we do, an enduring if not indelible impression on those we leave behind. In the beginning, God gave humankind the ability to speak and name things.
Our words are our precious legacy, and as such, we should be judicious in choosing our words carefully, understanding the impact they will have. What we say and to whom we say it carries long after we are gone, to another lifetime.
Rabbi David Levin is the founder of Jewish Relationships Initiative, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping seekers find meaning. His recently published book, co-edited with Rabbi Dayle Friedman and Reb Simcha Raphael, “Jewish End of Life Care in a Virtual Age: Our Traditions Reimagined” is available on Amazon.com. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.