This week’s portion concludes the Book of Genesis. Jacob/Israel, the last patriarch, prepares for death, and in poetic and stylized language, he blesses his sons. Our sages have spent thousands of years reading and discussing Jacob’s final words: Does Jacob describe or predict the future of these men, each of whom represents one of the tribes of Israel? Both the form and the linguistic craft of this portion signal to the reader that these words reverberate far beyond a deathbed exchange between one father and his sons.
Many biblical passages are incorporated into our prayers. Other passages, like these 27 verses, provide a frame for understanding prayers that live in our hearts and minds. The rabbis who compiled the Midrash link Jacob’s words to the Shema, the declaration of God’s oneness that Jews repeat morning and evening. My teacher Menachem Lorberbaum suggests that the Shema is the Jews’ pledge of allegiance; we “pledge” ourselves to stand for God’s presence and power through our lives and our deeds.
In Midrash Rabbah, the rabbis ask, “How did the Jewish people merit the recitation of the Shema?” Using a beloved rhetorical trope, they answer their own question: “When Jacob (who was named Israel) was about to die, he called together all the tribes and he said to them: ‘[I am anxious] lest you bow down to another God after I have departed this world.’ ”
Jacob, the father from the old country, Canaan, has traveled to Egypt, from one world and one worldview to another. He now bids farewell to his children who have settled in an alien land, a foreign culture. Jacob’s first request is that his children bury him not in Egypt, but in his native Canaan. The rabbis imagine him fearing that his children will forget the land that is their inheritance, and that they will also forget the Holy One who guided Jacob’s father and grandfather through their trials and throughout their lives. Jacob pleads: “Hearken to Israel, your father” (Genesis 45:2).
The rabbis teach that Jacob’s sons, with a single voice, respond to the anxious, weakened patriarch: “ ‘Hear, O Israel. The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.’ And their grateful father whispered, ‘Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’ ”
The father is reassured by his sons’ presence. They are finally together, after many years of separation. The rabbis imagine the sons speaking as one. The rabbis create a powerful tableau of 10 men who come together in reconciliation and acceptance, of a father who, even on his deathbed, was neither evenhanded nor kind. They also had to reconcile and accept one another.
With the rabbis’ help, we see 10 adults, bound by blood, who find a way to transcend their own hurts, brothers who recognize and embrace the precious and powerful legacy they share. Together, they pledge that they will serve the God of Jacob, the God of Isaac, the God of Abraham; the God of Rachel, the God of Leah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Sarah. They pledge that they will carry on the tradition of blessing and praise “for ever and ever.”
As we come to the end of the book of Genesis, as we count the days at this darkest time of year, what is our pledge? Can we, too, imagine transcending differences and embracing shared legacies of meaning and commitment?
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected] .