My two grandmothers couldn’t have been more different. One was tall and traditional; my sisters and I were absolutely brilliant. We used to tease her, saying that even if we became ax murderers, she’d see us as the very best ax murderers there ever were. Our other grandmother was a tiny teacher; she was very modern, very matter-of-fact, and never let a teachable moment go by. It was a perfect balance. It was comforting to know that someone in the world saw us through very rosy lenses, but I think it was the other grandmother who made us stronger women.
This was certainly the case when Jacob offered blessings to his many sons, in this, the last parasha of Genesis . Vayichi (he lived) is an interesting title for a parasha, for as was the case with Sarah, (Chayei Sarah, “the life of Sarah” which began with Sarah’s death), Vayichi tells us about the death of Jacob. But whereas Sarah simply dies with no other narrative, there is quite a long and detailed description of Jacob’s death.
Jacob is on his deathbed. He has blessed his grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah, and now calls for his sons, “Gather ‘round that I may tell you what shall befall you in days to come” (Gen 49:1) Jacob is not really going to bless his sons; more accurately, he is giving them his final admonitions – his truest assessments of their characters. Joseph is the only one who comes off with what could be called a blessing, and Judah is acknowledged as the future leader of the Israelites. The rest? What they get is not really loving, but searingly honest. Jacob confronts Reuben with his betrayal, and Simeon and Levi with their violence. The others get summed up as animals (a snake, a ewe, a donkey) or merely find out where their plot in Canaan will be; it’s more like an assignment than a blessing.
Why would Jacob take this last opportunity with his sons to speak like this? One interpreter suggests that Jacob was doing what s many modern parents try to do: separate the behavior from child. “Jacob sought to temper his words, to encourage them to distance themselves from their behavior. In this sense, his criticism was intended as a blessing, offering his sons a chance to renounce their past actions and become better people “ (Torah: A Women’s Commentary p. 298)
I think when push comes to shove, most of us see our children pretty clearly. We know their strengths and weaknesses, their personalities and predilections. In fact, sometimes we see them more clearly than they see themselves, which may come as a surprise to our kids. We know which child has to talk it out, which one needs to be left alone, which one needs a “swift kick”, and which one needs to get hurt in order to learn. Jacob really takes this to heart. In addressing and blessing his sons, he sees them not only for who they are, but who he knows they can be.
It may have been hard for the sons to hear, but I’m sure those words stayed with them. Jacob showed us that we can love with a critical eye, that honesty is not rejection; in fact, it is the strongest kind of love.