Va Yehi – on parents, on poetry, and on peoplehood

Jacob’s death reminds us that the connection between parents and children is sacred. While in today’s world family relationships can be very complicated, many Jews identify strongly with family, and in particular with parental love. Jacob is able to die in peace because he is able to reunite with Joseph. Many of us may also be able to find more peace if we reach out to those in our family with whom we may have difficult or severed connections.

Before Jacob dies he adopts Joseph’s children into his line (thus creating the eleventh and twelfth tribes). He then blesses each child, speaking to them of the qualities that they will impart to their descendents. This is done through poetry, and is one of the passages in the Torah worthy of close study. It gives an overview for what the writers of this section (in the time of the Judges) thought about their forebears and about what the forebears would have hoped they would become. The attributes of each son are emblematic of qualities the writers imagine were hoped to be inherent to the culture.

In this section, Jacob’s death is given much attention but Joseph’s follows quickly and with very little said about it, except that we are told that Jacob asks to be returned after his death to the promised land, while Joseph’s body remains in Egypt. We have here a sense that the promise of Genesis – Abrahamic descendents and the coming up and together of a people – is fulfilled here. Jacob as the last of the major patriarchs will return to the land, while his descendents will go out into the world.

The contemporary struggles with how we define our peoplehood, and our sense of belonging in it, as well as the claim to land on which this Torah portion hinges, are the stuff of serious consideration. The twelve tribes may not mean much to us today, but a sense of peoplehood does. We may not feel a strong connection to “the holy land,” but, then, we may. For some of us these ties still are rooted in biblical text, for many of us they have to do with political and social values, history, and a more contemporary sense of selfhood.

This portion concludes Genesis, the beginnings of Jewish peoplehood, and
with the poetry ascribing qualities, destinies, and love for the Abrahamic descendents, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our sense of belonging, and our sense of what it means to belong, to the Jewish people. Not all of the twelve sons are the same. In fact, it is the diversity of the qualities they bring – some brave, some wise, some loyal, etc. – that gives strength to the people. So too with Jews today. We do not have to think or act the same way. We are stronger due to our differences from each other. We do better when our individuality can be recognized as contributing to the group. The poetry of the bible is sometimes quite moving. This time, the words make us think of our “mishpocha” (family) in the largest sense, and what our place in it may be.

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