Papa, Can You Hear Me? , sang Barbara Streisand in the movie Yentl, after her father dies. I remember everything you taught me, every book I ever read,…Papa how I love you,… miss you, she sings. And so her father is very much with her, in spirit and influence, though he is gone. Her Papa’s willingness to educate his daughter, imparting learning, and the love of learning changes everything for Yentl. And so it is with, not only our fathers, but those teachers who have changed our lives. Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, which means “and he lived”, but is really about the end of Jacob’s life and his death.
It is also the end of an era, the end of Genesis. Never again will there be Patriarchs. The foundation of the nation of Israel has been set in human flesh and family and will become the stuff of legend. The twelve tribes are set in the heavens as the twelve signs of the zodiac. I visited the Synagogue near Beit She-an and saw the mosaics of the twelve tribes – each with its symbol: Judah is the lion, perhaps Leo. This astrology is controversial, but primal, symbolic images will prevail as papa Jacob/Israel blesses his sons.
But Jacob’s death is also personal, it is our papa Jacob who dies: we are his children, the children of Israel
And his grandchildren – for the first time Grandparent/grandchild interaction happens in Torah, in this incredibly moving encounter between Jacob with Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasseh.
This final part of the saga begins as Jacob, who has come to Egypt and met with Pharoah, and lived her 17 years, is sick. This is first mention of illness ever. According to Talmud, (Baba Metzia 87a) Jacob actually prays that illness should come before death. Joseph is told “your father is ill, you need to go to him. And so Joseph goes and brings his boys . They are announced, and Jacob pulls his strength together, sits up on the bed, and begins to speak of the old times. God appeared to me in Luz, in Canaan and blessed me saying I would become a Kahal of people and that this land would belong to my descendants. As for me, I miss my Rachel, your mamma, I loved her so, but she died on me. Ah, who are these children?
“They are my sons, my Abba, whom God has given me:” And Jacob’s eyes are heavy with age, and he cannot see.. I never even prayed to see your face again, and now God has let me see not just you, but your children also.
Did you notice something mysterious here? How can Jacob see them, “he cannot see”! Obviously with Grandpa-eyes.
And Joseph released his sons and bowed to the ground. And Grandpa Jacob Sent out (Yishlach) his hand to the boys to change family history
This “sending out” to touch is going to connect these two generations in a powerful way. Once before a Father “Yishlach” sent out, his hand, but that was Abraham on the verge of slaughtering his son.
Now a grandfather is sending out his hand to bless and he’s going to cross his hands on purpose (sikel et yadav – with wisdom in his hands) to bless the younger with the favored right hand over the left. Joseph thinks it’s a mistake, and tries to correct his Dad: “I know, my son, I know” Jacob repeats. And in one motion reverses a mistake of three generations. Always the younger battled and fought to gather blessings that belonged to the elder. But these boys will not fight. They will be blessed only because they are treasured Grandsons. It’s Ok Joseph, the older will be great too, but this younger one will be better. And always will my name live in Israel, and that of my fathers, Abe and Isaac, and they will bless their sons saying May you be like Ephraim and Menasseh. And we do, Always bless the children!
In a way the crossing of the hands is a distraction to the real truth, which is: we always bless our children, all of them, not just the elder, so they know, we love them because they are our beautiful children.
Oh, by the way, do they have to look beautiful physically? (See Grandpa eyes above)
Jacob has taught his children and grandchildren – in his actions, in an action that carries down in tradition today. Jacob will continue to give advice to all his sons as the portion continue. Perhaps he also blessed Dina, but his daughter’s blessing is lost to history. And Jacob asks to be buried in Canaan, as will Joseph, (and no others). The funeral takes weeks to march the body down. I imagine the sons looking up at the desert night air, looking for their papa’s star, as Yentl does.
I touch the future, I teach, the immortal Krista MacCauliff wrote,
Whether we have biological children or not, the ripples of our teaching reach into future lives and ensures that a part of us can not die. Yakov, is every Grandpa and teacher, but also fixer of mistakes of the past generations, sending out a hand to the next generation to heal.
As I look at the night sky, I remember always my beautiful grandparents, my father, and those others who’ve taught me so much. “The stars that light up the darkest nights, are the lights that guide us, “ wrote Channah senesh. (Yeish Kochavim)
It is customary upon completing a book of the Torah to chant Chazak, “be strong, be strong, and strengthen one another” In Dan Nichol’s Chazak, another connection: Torah strengthens by teaching us just as Papa Jacob and Yentl’s papa strengthen by teaching.
Rafael Ramos died last week, father of two boys – who look just like their Dad. I dedicate this effort to them. Rafael was studying for the chaplaincy in the NYPD, and his name means “God heals”, and may God indeed heal the boys’ hearts. May all our fathers’ and teachers’ memories be for blessing. CHAZAK