About 48 hours ago, my wife and I set out on a grand, complicated, international adventure with our little one. Or at least that’s how it feels. In actuality, we flew to Berlin via Istanbul (which I know isn’t a geographically logical route, but was a lot cheaper) to visit my sister-in-law and her new baby. We’ll be with them for a week, long enough for our kiddo to get to know his baby cousin a bit and to spend some quality time with his two aunts (my wife’s little sister flew in for the week, too).
It felt like a pilgrimage, not least because flying overseas these days is such a precarious thing to do. We had plenty of close almost-canceling-this-shindig moments: A massively delayed PCR test, a house-sitter who came down with COVID, weeks of trying to figure out quarantine protocols for our unvaccinated two-year-old. Add in twenty-odd hours in transit and it feels like a big deal.
Plus, of course, the nature of the visit. We’re here for the next generation to, quite literally, meet each other. These little people will be carrying on the torch of our family legacy one day. Their relationship to one another will form the weave of familial relationships going forward, and this is the first time they’ll have any contact. That’s pretty momentous in itself.
(Our toddler is, in fact, afraid of babies—so unpredictable, noisy, and cub-like!—so the meeting wasn’t exactly pivotal. But still.)
Anyone who’s read this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, has probably guessed what I’m hinting at here. This one is the last portion in the book of Genesis. Next week we’ll be embroiled in the complex web of Israelite slavery in Egypt and all that follows. This week, though, we’re not talking about Israelites yet. We’re talking about that first generation — the sons of Jacob (aka Israel) — whose descendants will walk through the Red Sea into freedom.
For one more portion, it’s still all about family. Not tribes.
Like so many, this portion is also a strange one. The story begins with a summation of our patriarch’s years: “Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years,” reads Genesis 47:28.
Then the next three chapters talk about his last … rites? Blessings? Premonitions? Kind of all of it wrapped up into one. He’s taking care of business, but he’s also letting his sons know exactly what he thinks of them. And he has a lot of thoughts.
One thing that’s often noted is the fact that, when Joseph brings his sons (Menashe and Ephraim) to their grandfather to receive a paternal blessing, Jacob opts to place his right hand on the head of his younger grandson instead of the elder, as tradition would have had it. The text suggests that this is the first of his predictions: “[Ephraim] shall be greater than [Menashe], and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations,” says Jacob in Genesis 48:19.
He’s right — when it comes time for the Israelites to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, half of the tribe of Menashe stays on the eastern shore of the river, bidding their brethren goodbye and dissipating into other tribes of the desert.
The rest of the portion follows suit. Jacob predicts the fates of each of his sons and their descendants, and he doesn’t mince words. Reuben is “unstable as water,” and will “excel no longer,” says Genesis 49:4. On the other hand, “Asher’s bread shall be rich, and he shall yield royal dainties.” Rashi took this to mean that the land designated to the tribe of Asher will be rich with olive trees. Either way, he fares better than Reuben does in their father’s eyes.
Finally, once he runs down the whole list, letting each know how their character and deeds will shake out, he makes a final request: He wishes to be buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca in the cave of Machpelah. Having said his piece he “drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 49:33)
There’s something about the candor with which Jacob addresses his sons that moved me as I read his words. And it’s not just the poetic forms in which he expresses how he feels, although that’s beautiful, too. There’s an urgency in Jacob’s voice here. He knows his time is coming soon; it all has to be said now, now, now.
There’s something to be said for not pulling your punches. The question I’m left wondering about, though, is what would happen if we spoke plainly about things more often. Not all the time, just not only at the very last moment. Would the sons of Israel not have had more opportunity to change their ways if it had been said 30 years earlier?
Maybe, instead, he would have been saying, “Shimon and Levi, if you don’t get that rage under control it’s gonna be way too late,” instead of, “[Shimon and Levi]’s weapons are tools of lawlessness,” as he does in 49:5.
We’re trying to be intentional, and yes, candid, about how we’re bringing up our little one to know his baby cousin. We both feel a responsibility when it comes to maintaining close family ties. We want to raise up this tiny human to be many things: Kind, curious, joyful, confident, loving. But we also know that we’re not raising him in a vacuum. It’s crucial that he should know his only first cousin. It’s vital that he should know his second and third cousins, too, and his myriad aunts and uncles who live around the globe (we’re heading to Israel after this, for the same reason).
It’s worth traipsing across the ocean with far too much luggage.
Sitting in my sister-in-law’s kitchen today, holding my baby nephew, watching my toddler play with his aunt while my wife cooked with her sister, it felt like we were setting up the next generation for success. Who knows, though, right? I don’t have the gift of foresight as Jacob did. But, hey, we can try.