Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

One of the greatest malaises of Western civilization to this day was captured by Ernest Becker (1924-1974) in his book, Denial of Death. Becker points to the reality we know all too well, that we shield and mask death from our lives until it is too late. What we seek to mask, according to Becker, is a deeper anxiety of death and mortality, which itself is the result of an evolutionary clash between our will to survive and the peculiar survival strategy to cope with the ultimate futility of that survival urge.

And so, without any denial possible any longer, on his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Torah is our primary Jewish lens to bring meaning to our own confrontations with endings and new beginnings.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is a wallpaper-like pattern featuring different icons associated with the story of Joseph, which we conclude in Parashat Vayekhi. The eyes symbolize Joseph's vision and prognostication; the tears reference the weeping he does in moments of loneliness, forgiveness, and joy; the heart is a symbol not only of the profound love Jacob felt for Joseph, but also for the big-hearted actions taken by Joseph as Bereshit (Genesis) draws to a close. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Meiketz — Genesis 41:1 – 44:17

What happens when you are beyond eye-view?

To be beyond eye-view is to fall into oblivion and be forgotten. Recall how Joseph was cast away by his brothers earlier in the narrative, thrown into that "empty pit [bor]; there was no water in it!" (Genesis 37:34). In prison, Joseph is also trapped in the emptiness of the "dungeon [bor]" (Genesis 40:15). All Joseph needs is to be remembered, yet at each turn, everyone seems to forget him! Pharaoh comes closest to remembering this gift of Joseph, saying: "There is none so discerning and wise as you." (Genesis 41:39)

Joseph's repressed prowess continues to grow, given his gifts as dream interpreter as well as financial advisor to Pharaoh. In short order, Joseph is promoted to governor of Egypt and marries into the royal family. His wife, Asenath, (ironically, the daughter of Potiphar), bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The wheel turns as famine spreads throughout the region, forcing Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt to purchase grain from the prodigal son they had all but forgotten about. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize their brother, who walks, talks, and for all intents and purposes is a fully assimilated Egyptian governor and citizen.

Accusing his brothers to be spies, Joseph demands Benjamin but settles for Simeon as hostage. Jacob sends Benjamin as an envoy only after Judah assumes responsibility for him. In a highly melodramatic turn, Joseph now receives his brothers hospitably, releasing Simeon and inviting them to dinner. Yet, he then plants a magical goblet into Benjamin’s sack and has his brothers pursued and searched by his men the next morning. The goblet is discovered, and Joseph arrests his brothers. The price for their freedom is giving up Benjamin as collateral; he shall be enslaved to Joseph. Reminiscent of his father Jacob, Joseph is remarkably adept at outmaneuvering his family and the society he has quickly assimilated into.

His quest to be remembered is our own need to not be forgotten nor let our lives be wasted in oblivion.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts Joseph’s Egyptian burial mask. The face is meant to appear a little uncertain, and the mask likewise stands just off-center. The image is inspired by Genesis 41:45: "And Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath Pa’neach…" It’s significant that Pharaoh renames Joseph, making him the first biblical character not renamed by G-d. Joseph also takes an Egyptian wife. We might think of Joseph as the prototypical diaspora Jew. He may be fetishized and celebrated by the majority culture in which he finds himself, but his success and acceptance in Egypt ultimately allow him to save his family and sustain the ancestral line that will become the ancient Israelites. In his essay, The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History, Rabbi Gerson Cohen (z”l) argues that "not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity, but...in a profound sense, [it] was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source or renewed vitality." There is a Hanukkah lesson there. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi — Genesis 47:28–50:26

facebook_coverdesign_vayekhiConfronting our own mortality can often give rise to unseen blessings in our lives and the lives of those we love. At the close of Genesis, during Jacob's final hours, he conducts a stocktaking of his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. On his deathbed, Jacob announces: "…I am now old, and I do not know how soon I may die… So that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die." (Genesis 27: 2,4)

In the course of this grandiose blessing of the next generation, a tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to Jacob's grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, who Jacob does not recognize. He asks his son Joseph about his grandchildren: “Who are these?” (Genesis 48:8) Eventually, Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors, bringing Genesis to a close.

Just as it opens with blessing, Genesis closes with it – so may we all be blessed in our own ongoing journey into communal life that emerges through Exodus.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. "But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim's head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh's head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn." (Genesis 48:14) Jacob’s crossover blessing is traditionally understood as yet another example of the Torah showing the younger son displacing the older. Contemporary Biblical scholars also surmise that the account was written to foreshadow the future power of Ephraim’s descendant, Jeroboam (c. 960 - 910 B.C.E.), who would become the first king of Israel’s Northern Kingdom. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Meiketz — Genesis 41:1–44:17

facebook_coverdesign_mikeitzSometimes our hidden gifts reveal themselves to us in expected times and places. Pharaoh unveils this gift to Joseph, saying: "There is none so discerning and wise as you." (Genesis 41:39)

Joseph's prowess continues to grow, given his gifts as dream interpreter as well as financial advisor to Pharaoh. In short order, Joseph is promoted to governor of Egypt and marries into the royal family. His wife, Asenath, (ironically, the daughter of Potiphar), bears him two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.

The wheel turns as famine spreads throughout the region, forcing Joseph’s brothers to come to Egypt to purchase grain from the prodigal son they had all but forgotten about. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize their brother, who walks, talks, and for all intents and purposes is a fully assimilated Egyptian governor and citizen.

Accusing his brothers to be spies, Joseph demands Benjamin but settles for Simeon as hostage. Jacob sends Benjamin as an envoy only after Judah assumes responsibility for him. In a highly melodramatic turn, Joseph now receives his brothers hospitably, releasing Simeon and inviting them to dinner. Yet, he then plants a magical goblet into Benjamin’s sack and has his brothers pursued and searched by his men the next morning. The goblet is discovered, and Joseph arrests his brothers. The price for their freedom is giving up Benjamin as collateral; he shall be enslaved to Joseph. Reminiscent of his father Jacob, Joseph is remarkably adept at outmaneuvering his family and the society he has quickly assimilated into.

Following our hearts and keeping them connected to our minds, like Joseph, offers us all new pathways to redeem us from most of life’s imprisonment.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an expressionistic depiction of the seven famished cows that appear in the Pharaoh's dream. "And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh..." (Genesis 41:3) Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Vayekhi -- Genesis 47:28-50:26

1080-Jacob_Blessing_Ephraim_and_Manasseh_by_Benjamin_WestRenowned violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin (1916-99) was born in New York of Russian-Jewish parents, and made his violin debut at the age of seven performing Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with the San Francisco Symphony, eventually launching himself at an early age on a lifelong career that was to take him all over the world, playing with leading conductors and orchestras. This exceptional musician and committed humanitarian once noted:

Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.

One can almost hear how the melody of the Jacob narrative works in this way, especially with the stocktaking of his children, the twelve tribes of Israel. It is a melody that remains at peace with the gaps that occur between "imposing continuity upon the disjointed" lives of his grandchildren.

Amidst this grandiose act of blessing the next generation, the most tragic moment almost passes everyone by when it comes to his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh. It is that minor moment where Jacob asks his son Joseph about his very grandchildren: “Who are these?” (48:8) Eventually Jacob agrees to bless his grandchildren, but Joseph is displeased as his father appears to be flouting the social etiquette by blessing Ephraim, the younger, before Manasseh, the elder. True to the ongoing disruption of primogeniture in the Book of Genesis, Jacob corrects his son, Joseph, who has assimilated the primacy of primogeniture in Near Eastern society, wherein the elder ruling over the younger sibling is an expected norm.

In the end, no matter how assimilated, Joseph accepts his father, Jacob’s unconventional blessing for his own children that both challenges societal norms while following in his father’s footsteps. Respecting his father’s last wishes, now also his own, both Jacob and Joseph are interred in the Holy Land together with their ancestors bringing Genesis to a close.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: "Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh," by Benjamin West, 1766-68

Toldot -- Genesis 25:19-28:9

Isaak_zegent_Jakob_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-110Charles de Gaulle, the French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces in their resistance of Germany during World War II, once quipped:

How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?

De Gaulle's ironic observation points to a larger question about how we embody and deal with conflict that extends beyond our immediate selves -- beyond our immediate families -- and that impacts entire nations?

Rebecca is all too familiar with this question, and she quickly learns how the struggle she feels intimately in her womb becomes a struggle in the world:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your innards; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. Two nations and the younger shall prevail over the elder.” (Genesis 25:23)

Although it is lost on most modern readers, the Book of Genesis is known for its audacity insofar as it challenges and overthrows the conventions of Near Eastern literature which privileges the myth of primogeniture, namely, that the elder son is the dominant one who is expected to inherit land and legacy. Jacob eclipses Esau, his older brother, just as Ephraim eclipses Manasseh.

What can we learn from this theme in scripture of a younger child eclipsing the older one, particularly in the Patriarchal Period? After all, if this extends beyond two siblings to an eighth child, as in the case of David being chosen over his seven older brothers (I Samuel 16: 6-13), then something is clearly afoot here.

The genius of Judaism remains its willingness to contend with discrimination and to continue against all odds to find its place in a world that does not necessarily run according to its rhythms. Our contemporary challenge is to continue channeling that genius in order to better both the children of Abraham and Adam -- a diverse family of which we are all proud members.

- Rabbi Glazer

Image credit: “Issac blessing Jacob,” by Govert Flinck, 1638