The end of one generation and the coming together of another — and another
TorahParshat Vayechi

The end of one generation and the coming together of another — and another

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

This year’s reading of the end of Genesis speaks to me in a way it hasn’t before. You see, Mom died on Rosh Hashanah this year and Dad died six years ago, just hours before Kol Nidre. While their deaths came at the right time in their journeys, even as we wished for more healthy years for each of them, the coincidence(?) of both dying during the Days of Awe/Repentance affords me the opportunity to reflect on the power of relationships we aspire to build during our lifetimes and the focus on those relationships during the High Holy Days.

My brother Andrew and I are learning how to live as brothers who were given life and nurtured by our parents, now in their physical absence. It actually has been going rather well. We are learning new things about each other as we engage in deeper conversations about life at large. We are spending time together without focusing on the well-being of our parents and how to support them in a myriad of ways. The truth is that we have had a very good relationship over the course of the decades while Mom and Dad were alive. It’s just different now. We are fortunate, especially as we think about our relationship in comparison to Joseph and his brothers way back when, after the death of their surviving parent, Jacob.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father’s [house].” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result —the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your dependents.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15ff)

I have great concern for these ancient brothers of ours at that time of relational imbalance. While I could understand that Joseph’s high status in Egypt afforded him the opportunity to travel back to the Land of Canaan to bury Jacob, I am troubled that the other 11 did not accompany him on his journey nor accompany their father to his final ancestral resting place. I am also worried that even though it was for the sake of good family relations, the brothers lied to Joseph about the instructions that Jacob left. Everyone knows — including Rashi — that Jacob never gave instructions for Joseph to forgive the brothers. They told a white lie to save themselves from the anticipated wrath of their powerful brother. They were neither present with Joseph nor confident that their previous interactions with him would form a solid foundation for their parentless relationship.

Even with these misgivings, I am hopeful that with the close of the Book of Genesis, we close a chapter on sibling mistrust. Rabbi Norman J. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion writes:

The battle was over. Jacob as the patriarch of Israel lived to see his family united and his sons gathered together in harmony. The tension that characterized the previous generations, beginning in the Garden of Eden and moving through Adam’s sons, Abraham and his family, the generation of Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s struggles in Laban’s house together with Leah and Rachel, dissipated. The wholeness that had been missing since the days of creation seems to have been achieved. The sides have finally come together. And even though after Jacob’s death the brothers feared that Joseph would kill them, just as Esau had planned revenge on his brother Jacob once their father Isaac would no longer be alive, Joseph, who had changed, eased their fears. He assured them that he held no grudges toward them and he guaranteed that he would sustain them.

The very same Joseph who had tattled on them, speaking harshly about them to their father, now could speak only kindly to them. The same Joseph who expected his entire family to worship him, bowing down in homage and recognizing his power, now is able to admit that he is not God and there was absolutely no reason for his brothers to fear him.

Joseph himself had grown and achieved a degree of harmony and peace. His family in turn had come together as never before. They would live together in Egypt and his brothers’ descendants would carry his remains back with them to their ancestral homeland. “Self, Struggle, and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives,” Norman J. Cohen. 1995. pp. 186f.

As we turn the page on another kind of new year, this is what I hope for all of us:

• We will faithfully be with the previous generation all the way to the end of their journey.

• We will be with each other on that journey.

• We will lay foundations of solid relationships that do not require postmortem lies.

• We will discontinue the negative impacts of epigenetics on us, our children, and their children and replace them with positive actions that display the power of healthy relationships.

May this new year afford us the opportunity to open a new chapter of kindness with each other reminiscent of how Joseph eventually spoke kindly with his brothers.

Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazayk: Be strong, be strong, and may we strengthen each other! PJC

Rabbi Ron Symons is the senior director of Jewish Life and the director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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