End of life poetry and blessings from the deep in Genesis’ final portion | Parashat Vayechi

Less than 24 hours before my mom spoke her final words, my children, husband, and I gathered around her hospital bedside. At 83, with a constellation of health challenges, she had appeared to be recovering from a recent stroke. With Covid protocols still in force at the hospital, our faces were half-obscured by masks. We sat next to her, chatting and watching her favorite television program, “Jeopardy.”  

“Let me see your beautiful faces,” she implored the grandkids. They turned to me to see if they should lower the masks. “Come closer to me,” she beckoned. She wished them long lives, goodness, and love. “God has let me see your children, too. So beautiful.” Four days later, my mom passed away.  

The scene at the foot of my mother’s deathbed occurred thousands of years after a not so dissimilar version of this event for the patriarch, Jacob, in Genesis’ final portion. Perhaps to emphasize the importance of the way a person lives rather than dies, the portion is named “Vayechi” and contains the root word, “chai,” life. The portion offers details about Jacob’s preparations for death, including promises from Joseph to bury him back in Canaan in the family’s ancestral cave. In a final act of parental favoritism, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons and immediately elevates the younger child (Ephraim) by granting him the rights of the firstborn (Menasseh). Jacob/Israel can’t resist assigning Joseph an extra portion of land that he won in a battle from the Amorites. Finally, Jacob calls all of his sons and offers a poetic blessing (and occasional brutal critique). 

Today’s Torah readers and listeners are invited to huddle up next to Reuben, Simeon, Judah, and the rest of the tribal leaders at Jacob’s regal bedside and witness his valedictory blessings and pronouncements. Reuben loses his first-born status because of sexual immorality. Described as “pachaz ka-mayim,” he is accused of being unstable, reckless, and unrestrained like water. Simeon and Levi are chastised for being a violent duo, perpetually accompanied by anger and maiming. Judah, however, is a lion’s whelp and glorious leader. The poem continues with references to Zebulun’s seafaring, Asher’s bounty, Dan’s ingenious battle tactics, and Naphtali’s beauty. Of course, Joseph (of multi-colored coat fame) receives the most effusive compliments, including “blessings… to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills” (Genesis 49:25-26). 

There is something cinematic about these final Genesis chapters. Joseph, wracked with grief, flings himself on his deceased father, weeping and kissing him. After Jacob dies, the brothers fear retaliation from Joseph, whom they suspect has been withholding revenge. But Joseph assures them that they should not be afraid. “Va’yenachaym otam va’yedabear al-libam” (Genesis 50:21). Instead of bringing up past offenses, Joseph “consoles them [his brothers] and speaks kindly to them.” At the age of 110, Joseph dies, as well, and the first section of the Torah concludes. 

Each year, as we confront these ancient Torah stories, our eyes are fresh with new experiences and emotions. Since I last read these words, I, too, have sat by a parent’s deathbed and witnessed end-of-life blessings. In spite of the pain of seeing my mom so ill, I know that I was also fortunate to have had the opportunity to be with her for the last week of her life. When she died, my emptiness was somewhat softened by the love she expressed in her life and in her final blessings.  

But what happens when losses are sudden and unexpected? What happens in the painful instances when memories of family members are filled with the awkward back-handed “blessings” of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi? How does one move forward to the next chapter, the next book, when the ending is not so neat or symmetrical as the one in Genesis? 

Helpfully, the medieval French rabbi, Talmudic commentator, and philosopher, Rashi (c.1040-1105), provides some consolation. He assures his students that even though it appears that Jacob denounced some of his sons in his final words to them, in fact, Jacob had also offered them blessings with all of the other children at an earlier time -proven by the Torah text, “and he blessed them” (Pesikta Rabbati 7). The Italian philosopher, scholar, and physician, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550), takes Rashi’s assumption one step further when he explains that the phrase, “and blessed them,” in Genesis 49:28 refers to Jacob’s blessing his children “apart from what has been recorded in this chapter” (The Soncino Chumash: The Five Books of Moses with Haphtaroth, edited by the Rev. Dr. A. Cohen, page 309). Sforno insists that Jacob must have provided blessings, even to his disappointing sons. We just couldn’t hear those words, whispered in private so many thousands of years ago. 

When parents or other dear ones pass away, and we have not tied up loose ends, we can borrow Rashi and Sforno’s lessons of assuming that blessings were uttered out of earshot. Of course, I am not speaking about cases of abuse and neglect, and I would never ask someone to rewrite their own emotional history and valid emotions to pretend that a relationship was something it was not. But perhaps for those of us who did not have a chance to say a final goodbye to a loved one or to clear the air from long-ago hurts and snubs that were not on the level of abuse, this pivot toward grace and love can serve as a blessing. Jacob reminds his children that they are blessed by God with blessings of heaven above as well as “birchot tehom”, the blessings of the deep (Genesis 49:25). The love of family and friends who passed away before us continues to offer us blessings even in the starkness of their absence. Joseph carried his father’s bones back to Canaan, and we, too, carry our parents’ memories and those we love with us for all of our remaining days.   


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).