This week’s parsha, Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26), is a parsha of endings. The patriarch Jacob/Israel, having reached the ripe old age of 147 years, recognizes that the time has come for him to die. He gathers together his children in order to bless them, but the blessings are anything but straightforward. Some counter the expectations of the biblical characters, not to mention the readers: in blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, he places his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger son, and bestows upon him the greater blessing. Other blessings sound more like warnings, even curses. While Reuben is Jacob’s first born, and might expect a blessing in proportion with his favored status, Jacob instead promises Reuben he will “excel no longer” since he “mounted his father’s couch” (probably referring to Reuben’s illicit relations with his father’s concubine in Gen. 35:22). The topsy-turvy nature of these blessings reflects the tumultuous nature of the book of Bereshit itself. Nothing has been easy for the patriarchs and matriarchs, and the fulfillment of G-d’s promises has faced obstacle after obstacle. Yet as the book concludes, a sense of peace settles upon the Israelite people. After Jacob’s death, his son Joseph takes his body to Canaan to bury him, as per his last wishes, with great pomp and circumstance. Joseph forgives his brothers for mistreating him, going so far as to promise to sustain them and their children. In the last words of the parsha, Joseph dies, but looks towards the future with great hope, assuring his descendants that G-d will take notice of them and bring them to the land G-d promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It is fitting that we read this parsha at a time of endings for our own nation. This is the final Shabbat of the Obama administration, eight years that were often tumultuous, but also resulted in many blessings for women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants, to name just a few. In watching President Obama’s farewell address to the American people this week, I was reminded of Jacob’s blessings to his children in Vayechi. Obama, like Jacob, looked back on his tenure and tried to figure out what message he could send to a people facing an uncertain future—people feeling fear and trepidation, or at the very least some anxiety about impending change. Obama ultimately named four challenges to our democracy. First, the challenge of economic inequality; second, discrimination “in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system;” third, the persistent political bubbles so many of us are insistent upon inhabiting that keep us from truly listening to the “other side;” and finally, the challenge of truly engaging in our democracy—by voting, protesting, calling our representatives, or even running for office. Despite these challenges, Obama, like our parsha, ended on a note of hope. He urged the American people to “hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we can.” (For full transcript of the Farewell Address, please see https://www.whitehouse.gov/farewell.)
Why the optimism? Joseph promised his children, the Israelites, that G-d would notice them, but G-d has been notoriously absent from his own difficult journey. (It is only at the end that Joseph states, with some (perhaps misplaced) confidence, that although his brothers may have intended him harm in throwing him in a pit and leaving him for dead, “G-d intended it for good.”) Obama is handing the reigns of the most powerful nation on earth to a man from whom, to put it mildly, nobody knows what to expect. It is here that we can perhaps glean some wisdom from another figure whose life and legacy we honor this weekend. In his last public speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that if he could be transported to any time and place in history, he would first choose to “take his mental flight” to the land of Egypt, at the moment when G-d is bringing the Israelites out of slavery and into freedom. And while he says the following about his own period of the 20th century, I think it can be applied to Shemot, our next parsha, and our own time, as well: “Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” (For full transcript of “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” please see http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.) It takes great men (and women) to see the stars in the darkness: Joseph at the end of Bereshit, Dr. King in the 1960s, Obama this past week. It is my wish for us all that whatever trouble and confusion may lie ahead, may we maintain our faith that there are stars to be seen—and may we commit ourselves to working to illuminate them.
Image used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.