D’var Torah: Parashat Vayechi

Well, it’s been a long, bumpy ride for this family and what I’d like to do is take the time to pause and ask ourselves what, if anything, has been resolved.? This is an important place to ask this question because here at the end of Genesis we’ve reached a narrative break. When we return to the story of our people again at the beginning of Exodus, it is already four hundred years later and the camera has panned out considerably–whereas powerful, individual personalities will continue to play an important role in the sweep of the biblical narrative, the stage on which they act will be wider, the stakes greater, more political and less personal.

But the personal is political. Certainly all three generations of patriarchs and matriarchs would have been able to agree with that one. And so it makes sense at this point to reflect on what the final situation is between Jacob and his children, between Joseph and his brothers, and what lessons they’ve internalized along the way. It makes sense because the effects of these deeply troubled familial relationships will have their echoes for many generations to come. This is something Jacob seems to recognize and acknowledge in his final poetic/prophetic summing-up of his sons, of his relationship to them and of theirs to each other.

So the question again is, has anything been resolved? Has the messy tale of family resentment and sibling rivalry come to a close in anything resembling a satisfactory way? I want to hear what others think about this, but before I open the floor I’ll make a couple of comments.

First, this is the first point in the narrative where the “official” Abrahamic line–the list of sons in each generation who are not rejected or excluded in some way from the family tree–it’s the first time this line actually branches off. It’s important to remember that this fact is not (or at least not simply) the result of divine decree, but of a very human inability for members of the family to get along with each other.
Until now, the seemingly inevitable rivalry between brother and brother (and let us not forget, between husband and wife, between wife and wife) has come down to a question of either/or. In the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael is cast out, along with his mother, to survive as best they can in the desert, a sacrifice to family harmony, leaving his brother Isaac to face sacrifice of a different kind. Esau too, and by extension his descendants, are ultimately excluded as the price of losing the struggle that had been going on between him and Jacob since before they were born. In both cases, and entire potential branch of our extended Jewish family is lost, and G-d’s promise to Abraham that He would make his descendants into a great nation is held back for a generation.
If we were reading the beginning of the story of Joseph, knowing what had ome before but not how it was going to turn out, we would probably assume that the ending would turn out the same as it did for Isaac and Jacob–rivalry between brothers ending only when one had emerged triumphant and the others had been excluded from their inheritance and the story of our people. This is almost certainly why Joseph’s brothers, who after all must be aware of their family history, are terrified, despite his apparently heartfelt joy when they are reunited, that he is secretly holding a grudge against them and planning to take his revenge after their father’s death.

It isn’t as if reconciliation between brothers is totally alien to the biblical narrative before now–Isaac and Ishmael, after all, come together to bury their father (you have to wonder what kind of conversation they had at that funeral. I’m willing to bet that each came away with the feeling that the other brother got the better deal when it came to their treatment by their father). Jacob too has his emotional, if brief, reunion with Esau. But in neither case is the reconciliation complete, and both Ishmael and Esau ultimately go off to found peoples of their own–powerful peoples with important places in history, but not our people, not our history.

It is only here in the case of Joseph and hist brothers that forgiveness and reconciliation seem to finally “take.” There is certainly a great deal of anxiety and discomfort that remains in their relationship, and Jacob’s deathbed prophecy to his sons certainly contains more than a little of the old favoritism that set this whole drama in motion to begin with, but in this generation at least these tensions are not great enough to pull the family apart.

I find it significant that it is from this generation that our people takes its name. Cartainly we are all children of Abraham, and Isaac too is one of our common fathers. But when it comes to the question of identity, we are and have been throughout history b’nai  Yisrael–that is to say, the children of Jacob. The symbolic significance of Jacob’s G-d-given name, of Yisra-el as those who wrestle with G-d, is very powerful and important. But I believe that at least part of the reason why we are called by this name is as a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, perhaps in calling our people b’nai Yisrael we can detect a kind of prophecy or expression of profound hope, that we be worthy of the name of a generation that was able to look past fear, resentment and conflict and to find peace on the other side.