Choices we make determine quality of life

Rabbi Mark Shook

By Rabbi Mark L. Shook

A very wise person once said: “The definition of a dysfunctional family was any family that had more than one member in it.”  Our Patriarch, Jacob/Israel, presided over a very dysfunctional family. Just how dysfunctional his family was is laid out for all to see in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26). 

The portion opens with a touching deathbed scene, as the dying Jacob seeks to bless his youngest grandsons, Manasseh and Ephraim. In his last moments of life, he contravenes the established order and blesses the younger before the elder. We should not be surprised at this breach of tradition. After all, Jacob lived his life as the younger brother blessed before his elder twin Essau. The Book of Genesis, even in its last paragraphs, is reminding us that no one’s life is determined by birth order. Rather, the quality of a life is determined by the choices made during that life. This theme will be evident throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

In a poetic passage often described as Jacob blessing his children, the dying patriarch is in fact blessing some and cursing others. He is having the last word. His children were not perfect. “Reuven, you are my first-born. … Unstable as water you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace — my couch he mounted.”  

The scene is not about deathbed forgiveness. Jacob is letting his sons know that their behavior, good or bad, shall determine the fate of their descendants.

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Despite the great reverence shown by many religious traditions toward the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, including the Torah, it would be a grave mistake to imagine our biblical forbears as perfect human beings incapable of making grave errors, committing sins. They were all very human, driven by the very same needs and desires that we are. Their stories touch us because we see ourselves facing the same kinds of temptations they do. They all experience love and hate, joy and sorrow. They are not superhuman — just human. That is precisely the point.

The Torah portion and the entire saga of Genesis ends with: “Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.” 

The ending reminds us that death is the fate of us all. The mighty and powerful Joseph dies. His last request confirms his faith in the ultimate destiny of his extended family: “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” 

Joseph knows that his people will return to Canaan. God has so promised the Children of Israel. 

Exodus will continue with a story that goes from slavery to freedom to covenant. But you already knew that. You probably saw the movie. 

Rabbi Mark L. Shook is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Temple Israel.