Vayechi: What is our Legacy?
What will be our legacy? Every generation asks itself these questions. It’s part of aging through life where we look to bridge past and future. Legacy gives us a sense that our life is worthwhile. It gives us the basis to believe that all our struggles and decisions in life can be framed in a way that can live on after us.
It gives us a chance at immortality.
The book of Genesis ends with a meditation on legacy. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we find the children of Jacob living quite well under the rule of Pharaoh. As father Jacob becomes conscious of his own impending death he gathers together his family to share with them words of blessing. He wants to set his affairs in order – to shape his legacy- for each of his children. He calls them forth and musters what prophetic strength he has saying, “Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come.” (Gen. 49:1)
Jacob’s worries are no different than our own. Will our children believe what we believe? Will they cherish the same values that we do? Will they forget our struggles? The children of Jacob are not starving as they did before, but they are not yet living up to God’s promise and covenant struck with Abraham. The book of Genesis ends and the brothers are in exile from the land, they have Egyptian wives and children, they don’t seem especially keen on returning home. They are living in Goshen, a nice place to settle in and make a life.
This is true especially of Joseph, who has lived abroad most of his life. He married the daughter of the Egyptian high priest and has two Egyptian sons who, according to the text, do not know their grandfather. (Gen. 49:8).
Speaking of Jacob, like every parent at the end of his or her life, he knows he cannot prescribe a living reality of which he or has not a part. Being a parent means that we set boundaries and teach values. We are intimate with our children and they learn from us. Yet, every parent at one point or another goes through tzimtzum, a holy withdraw of presence and control. It is said that God withdrew from the world in order to make space for creation to begin. This pulling back from the world is what enables our children to flourish. Tzimtzum is a selective retreat that is ongoing throughout child-rearing. We carried them and now they walk. We fed them and now they feed themselves. We clothed them and now they clothe themselves. We teach them how to make good choices, but now they must make them on their own. We cannot always fix what they break – but we can support them when they fail. Through tzimtzum, we re-align ourselves to live according to the patterns of our children’s lives.
The Talmud echoes this idea by saying that “Jacob wanted to reveal the end of days to his sons but the Shekhina (God’s Presence) departed from him.” (Tal. Bavli Pesachim 56a) Being gripped by the insecurity of his own mortality and the fear of the possibility of a failed legacy, his divine vision becomes clouded. Jacob has withdrawn from his children just as God has withdrawn from Jacob. He, like all of us, cannot truly see into the future.
Jacob’s fears are our fears. Will my children marry within the faith? Will they raise Jewish children? Will they love Israel the way I love Israel? Will they get along with each other? The many sociological studies that ask these questions give us no confidence in our legacy. They scare us. Like Jacob, our vision is clouded, our future uncertain. Ultimately we ask ourselves, “How will we, even if we can, shape a Jewish future of which we will have no part?” The question of Jewish legacy is one that takes hold in every generation. And here too the Torah gives us an answer.
Let’s turn from the perspective of Jacob to that of Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Ephraim. These two Egyptian-born kids have an Egyptian mother and a grandfather who is the priest of Egypt (Gen. 46:20). Their names point towards the discontinuity of their heritage in both memory (Menashe) and geography (Ephraim). (Gen 41:51-52). Their experience of Judaism is colored entirely by their father’s time in Pharaoh’s palace. Their first language is not Hebrew. They are assimilated into a different culture with a different spiritual language. They have a different orientation to life and a different outlook on what the future holds.
Menashe and Ephraim are familiar to us. They represent those in our families who carry a very different attitude about life and Judaism. Those who only feel “Jew-ish,” or whose experience of Judaism carries with it feelings of being marginalized from the greater Jewish family. They are the embodiment of our Jewish fear. Here these two boys stand with their father before the old guard with whom they have no relationship.
The meeting between old and new at this moment is palatable. There is tension and uncertainty between the parties. That is when the Torah, as it always does, shows us the way forward. Jacob takes these estranged boys into his bosom, and says, “your two sons…shall be mine.” (Gen. 48.5) Jacob reaches out to embrace Menashe and Ephraim as his own children. He makes room for them inside the tradition. He makes room for their differences. He makes room for their sense of the future. Jacob understands that children should not live only for their parents. Judaism is bigger than that. The Covenant is bigger than that.
We must embrace our Menashes and our Ephraims. Our legacy as Jews is to move beyond our fear, make room for new ideas all the while understanding that the need to make our Jewish lives feel indigenous to our historical psyche. Jacob shows us the elasticity within our tradition is what makes Judaism a vibrant, life-giving and meaningful path.
Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected on this truth when he wrote, “The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, and source of meaning relevant to all peoples.” Judaism’s greatest gift is not in the fear of its own survival, but in our continued ability to be a wellspring of meaning and growth to everyone.
The last gift of Jacob, for whom our nation is named, is the moral assertion that God’s blessings are always expansive. We bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Menashe, bringing to the center of Jewish life those who have not historically felt part of our community. Our legacy will be secured as the children of Jacob when we follow our father’s advice to let our hands rest on the heads on those who live on the outside and make them our own.