This final parashah/Torah reading in the book of Genesis includes an evocative scene: the patriarch is close to death, his twelve sons are gathered around him as he speaks his final words to each and every one of them. The Torah tells us that the patriarch, Jacob, blessed each son according to his blessing.
Try as I might, I find little that's heartwarming or inspiring in this scene: Jacob's daughter, Dina, is nowhere to be found and does not receive a parting blessing from her father . . . which might be a blessing in itself.
For what Jacob does say to each son, in the presence of all the others, isn't what I'd call a blessing . . . indeed, many of the sons seem to be condemned by their father more than blessed.*
"Reuben, you're my firstborn, my power, and the beginning of my might, . . . unstable as water, you'll not be preeminent, for you ascended your father's bed . . . (49:3,4).
"Simeon and Levi are brothers: implements of violence are their tools of trade. Let my soul not come in their council..." (49:5-6)
"Dan will be a snake on a road, a venomous snake on a path, that bites a horse's heels,and its rider falls backward." (49: 17)
"Benjamin is a tearing wolf: in the morning eating prey, and at evening dividing booty." (49:27)
Of course, other brothers fare slightly better:
"Zebulun will dwell by seashores: and he'll be a shore for boats..." (49:13
"Issachar is a strong ass crouching between the saddle-packs: and he saw rest, that it was good, and the land, that it was pleasant. and he leaned his shoulder to bear and became a work-company servant." (49:14-15)
"Naphtali: a hind let loose, who gives lovely words." (49:21)
And a few are truly blessed:
"Judah: You, your brothers will praise you. Your hand on your enemies' neck, your father's sons will bow to you." (49:8)
"A fruitful bough is Joseph, a fruitful bough over a spring . . . archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and despised him. and his bow stayed stong, and his forearms were nimble, from the hands of the Might One of Jacob . . .Shadday [another name for God] will bless you . . . blessings of your father, the mighty and most high, blessings of the mountains of old..." (49: 22,23-24, 25-26).
So it's no small surprise when we read: "And Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired. And Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept over him and kissed him." (49:33-50:1)
Thirteen children, twelve gathered at the death bed, and only one mourned him.
It is certainly the case that some of Jacob's sons were responsible for some very questionable acts. And I believe that parents are most effective when they are not blind to their progeny's shortcomings. But a dying father might say to his fanatically revengeful sons (see Genesis 34): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your souls as upright men of honor, maturity and perspective." A dying father might say to the son who slept with his father's concubine, Bilhah (see Genesis 35:22): "My prayer for you is that you will be broken down with remorse and then rebuild your soul as a man who has control of his urges and has respect for women and for family relationships."
There is a lot that is broken and dysfunctional in this biblical family. Jacob's parting words to his sons almost seem designed to plant chaos and dissension among them.
Then two profound things happen. Two profound things that demonstrate to me how much Torah is truly a light for us in every generation:
Joseph, the one child who truly mourns his father, receives permission from Pharaoh to journey to Canaan to bury his father in the family burial plot in the cave of Mahpelah. And the Torah relates: "And Joseph went up to bury his father, and all of Pharoah's servants, the elders of his house, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, and all of Joseph's house and his brothers and his father's house. Only their infants and their flock and their oxen they left in the land of Goshen." (Gen 50: 7-8)
In other words: as abusive as their father may have been, Jacob's sons stepped up and did him the honor due to him as the source of their lives. Jewish tradition teaches us that as adults, when we are no longer physically dependent on an abusive parent, we are not obligated to fawn over them, to keep trying to earn their love. But the adult children of abusive parents are obligated to make sure that their parents are safe, have respectable food, clothing and shelter and that their are honored in their death as the source of life and for whatever gifts of parenting they may have had. This is what we learn from Reuben and Simeon and Levi, Judah, Zebulun and Issachar, Dan, Gad and Asher, Naphtali and Benjamin.
The second moment of light comes as the family gathers together after Jacob is buried. Joseph's brothers speak among themselves: "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said, "If Joseph will despise us he'll pay us back all the bad we dealt to him." (50:15).
But Joseph has grown, not only in stature, but in faith and maturity. Perhaps being cut off from his family for so long has taught him the importance of family. He responds: "Don't be afraid, because am I in God's place? And you thought bad against me. God thought for good: in order to do as it is today, to keep alive a numerous people. And now, don't be afraid. I'll provide for you and your infants. " And he consoled them. And he spoke on their heart. (Gen 50: 19-21)
The long journey of this family of Jacob's begins with the pain of the effects of an abusive parent and ends with the healing power of a faithful and loving sibling.
*All translations are from Richard Elliott Friedman's excellent English translation of the Torah.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.