Parashat VaY’chi


The Torah is a book of laws, 248 positive mitzvot and 365 negative commandments that set forth Jewish practices from birth to death. When the Torah relates narratives and ìBible stories,î those accounts are included to teach us how to live in practical terms. Our guiding aphorism is ìMaíasei avot siman la-banimî: our ancestorsí deeds signal us, their children, how to live. Yet, the Torah is sparing in many story details, leaving unspoken that which ìgoes without saying.î

It is striking that, in the Torahís few death-bed scenes, the father offers one last series of blessings and instructions for his children. We see that model when our Patriarch Yitzchak, perceiving that he may be close to death ó time would reveal that he actually would have many more decades of life ahead ó addresses his sons, Yaakov and Esav, ad seriatim. We see it later in chapter 2 of the First Book of Kings, as the dying David addresses Shlomo, who will succeed him. And we see it in this weekís parshah, Vayechi, as Yaakovís sons assemble around his deathbed for their fatherís final words. In each such case, something else ìgoes without sayingî so (except for Yosefís tearful good-bye) is not recorded in the Torah: the last words of the children at that death-bed to the dying father. Perhaps they might have been something like this:

And Reuven said to Yaakov: Dad, I was your first-born and always bore a special life role by that virtue. When my Aunt Rachel died, I was so deeply concerned for the honor of my mother, Leah, that I moved your belongings into my Momís tent before any chance unfolded for you to move your belongings instead to the tent of Rachelís maid, Bilhah. It was wrong of me, I know, to interfere with your private matters, and I deeply apologize to you, Dad. I just loved my Mom so much, her honor. You taught me about living deep love, Dad. And I love you, Dad.

And Shimon and Levi said to Yaakov: Dad, you taught us to be proud and strong men in the face of peril and adversity. You overcame Uncle Esav, trying every peaceful means but ultimately ready to battle him physically if need be, and you indeed fought all night beforehand with that angel who left you with that injury. Dad, when Shechem raped our sister, your daughter, we all sat around wringing our hands, posed with a situation that seemingly afforded no options. So we united to send a message: the Children of Israel will not be treated with impunity like a harlot. We knew from what you taught us, by your every lifeís work, that the eternity of Israel is incontrovertible. You taught us faith that, if we do what is right and just, G-d will protect. So we acted as we had to, and He indeed protected us all. One day, Shimonís line will produce great Torah teachers or children, and Leviís line ó who knows, maybe a religious dynasty? If so, it will be because of what we learned from you. We love you so much, Dad.

And Judah said to Yaakov: Dad, I donít know what to say. The way you have blessed me to be the progenitor of our greatest future leaders. I am speechless. I thought I had failed you. I tried to free Shimon from Egypt and promised to bring Binyamin back home safely, too, and you might never have forgiven my failures. The incident with Tamar ó I assure you, Dad, that great things will come of those boys, Peretz and Zerach ó and I guess you understood and trusted me more deeply than perhaps I might have imagined. I promise that I indeed will rear my children to rear their children with great sensitivity to the blessings you now have conferred on my family line. Dad, we will make you so proud of us. I love you so much, Dad.

And so it may have gone. Dan and Naftali. Gad and Asher. Issachar and Zevulun. And then Binyamin said to Yaakov: Dad, I carry something so heavy in me. I know that I killed Mom. You never blamed me for it ó and, obviously, how could you reasonably do so? But people are people, and how might another father have related to the son whose childbirth took away the love of that fatherís life? And, yet, you instead showered on me all the special love and affection that you always had felt towards Mom. You protected and guided me. No, you didnít make me a coat of special stripes, and I get maybe why not. But you watched over me like a hawk. You wouldnít even let my brothers bring me to Egypt for an adventure to meet the new Viceroy who was distributing food, until you were persuaded that we were too low on food resources to delay further. And then, when you learned that the Viceroy was holding me behind, you disregarded your advanced age of 130 and determined to go to Egypt yourself, even at that age of weakness and broken-spiritedness, if that was what it would take to free me. I have never forgotten a moment of the love you have shown me, and I just wanted to say to you: I love you, Dad.

That may have been part of the death-bed scene that ìgoes with out saying.î Maybe not. But it feels good saying.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a legal consultant and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rav of Young Israel of Orange County, California.