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On parental blessings

With this week’s parasha, Vayehi, we complete the reading of the book of Genesis and bring the story of the family of Jacob to a close. As their father’s days draw to an end, the children of Israel each receive his final blessing. He calls together and tells them their future, reminding them to listen carefully – the verb is repeated (Genesis 49.2) - to the words of their father.

Reuben is the first-born, mighty and vigorous, yet considered too unstable truly to excel. Simeon and Levi are a pair of goons, also too angry and excitable to be a positive force. Judah, the fourth-born, is the white-toothed lion that will win his brother’s praise – and indeed eventually practitioners of Juda-ism will stem from the survival of his tribe. He is not the only son to be compared to an animal: Issachar is a strong-boned ass, Dan a snake on the road, while Naphtali is described as a gazelle, Joseph a wild donkey, and Benjamin a hungry wolf. Other sons receive blessings that relate to their eventual position in the land of Israel – Zebulun will dwell by the beach and harbour boats. Gad and Asher have punning predictions – Gad will be raided by raiders (Genesis 49.19 – Gad G’dud Y’gudenu), yet raid their heels back. From Asher (the name literally means happy or rich) will come not flatbread but “fat-bread”, demonstrating his wealth.

Throughout his life Jacob has been known for his dreams and visions, from his ladder with angels climbing up and down to heaven to his wrestling match with an unknown being the night before his reconciliation with Esau. He also seems to have passed on this gift to Joseph, who graduates from dreamer to dream-interpreter, which turns out to be a good career move to a far more lucrative profession. Here at the end of his life he offers his vision of his children’s future, and for better or worse he spells out their characters and his predictions.

As a new father to a six-week old child, this portion takes on a new resonance for me this year. Gazing into the deep blue eyes of my baby son, I wonder at what stage I will feel confident enough to offer any predictions for his future with any certainty or accuracy. At this stage of parenthood, the possibilities seem endless – this boy can conquer the world! But I suppose that as the years pass, his character emerges and experiences take him down a certain path, at a certain moment I will want to offer whatever sage advice I can, especially for his life beyond my own.

I can imagine it would have been a blessing to hear my father’s predictions for me before his passing. We did not get that opportunity, and he passed away eight years ago. That is a reminder to tell your loved ones what you think of them, even if you can muster nothing better than “you are a hungry wolf” or “you are a big-boned ass”. Tough love can be a blessing, even if it takes time to accommodate fully such words and to let them resonate. Birth and death are the extremes of a life that is rarely as long as we would like it to be, so this Shabbat, take some time to consider the blessings and predictions that you would like to share with your loved ones, and take the time to deliver them.

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