There were probably a lot of familiar faces around our tables over these last few weeks. Families gathered for celebration, parents, grandparents, children…all the family, and all the family dynamics and expectations. We read of a family gathered around in Vayechi too, in this last chapter of Bereshit, Genesis.
Jacob/Israel is dying. Joseph and his brothers are summoned. Jacob/Israel asks for his grandsons to come to his side, also, so he can give his blessings. This is a task usually reserved for the father, but Joseph acquiesces. Perhaps Jacob/Israel is remembering his own moment so many years before, standing at his dying father Isaac’s bedside, ready to receive the blessing he was tricking his brother Esau out of. Like Isaac, Jacob/Israel is old and losing his eyesight. And like Isaac, Jacob/Israel blesses the younger over the older, except this time, it’s done intentionally instead of through trickery.
But Jacob/Israel does something else with the sons all gathered around. He gives them each individual “blessings”, suited to their personalities. Each of what will be the 12 tribes of Israel gets not so much a blessing, as an evaluation. Jacob is incredibly insightful, knowing his sons so well. He raised them, watched them, saw how they behaved in crises and in calm, and he pronounces his assessments without holding back. The sons, I think might have flinched indeed. Consider Reuven: “You are my strength, first fruit of my vigor, excessive in strength..” But Reuven slept with his father’s concubine, perhaps signaling both misplaced desire and the son’s desire to supplant the father. Reuven does not get the first son’s blessing. Simon and Levi “are partners, instruments of violence…I will scatter them in Israel.” They massacred the men of Shechem after their sister Dina had been attacked, and Jacob couldn’t abide their “wrath and fury.” In fact, Simon would not remain a distinct tribe; he was absorbed into Judah’s. And Levi’s tribe became the priests, they received no land. Judah, however, would be the lion, the leader, an eternal dynasty through King David, the name by which we are still known as Jews. Each son had his turn.
How well Jacob/Israel knew his sons. How well we know our children, if we’ve been observant. It goes beyond remembering favorite colors or foods. This is a far deeper understanding of our children’s strengths and challenges. But how many of us are willing to see our children, or even our family and friends, as clear-eyed and bluntly as Jacob did? How many of us would flinch under that kind of honesty? Do we make assumptions about our children and family members, fit them into the boxes we want them to be in, and only see what we want to see? Jacob/Israel would tell us not to.
To take it a step further, how honestly do we assess our own community? Do we make assumptions there, too? How bold and candid are we about our own community’s behavior? How tolerant are we of different perspectives? How clearly do we see violence or weakness, true leadership or talents? And how do we reward or distance ourselves from them?
For the community of Israel to survive, we must not only be aware of our differences, but be willing to do as Jacob did: cast off the violent and furious in our midst, and value the forthright and honest among us. Only such honesty will ensure our future.