December 30, 2023 | 18 Tevet 5784
Torah: Genesis 47:28–50:26 Triennial: Genesis 49:1–26
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1–12
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
This week, we finish Genesis. We’ve read twelve parashot; we’ve lived through the past twelve weeks. Hazak hazak v’nithazek.
We started with tohu vavohu, the vast void, the swirling, unformed chaos. We witnessed creation and destruction; we’ve delighted in the Garden of Eden and perished in the Flood. We’ve built cities and seen them destroyed. We’ve built lives and been forced to leave our homes. We’ve walked with God and heard God’s promises.
Most of all, we have longed desperately for family, valuing it over all else. We were Abraham, longing for an heir, and Rebecca, ensuring our child got to return to the bosom of the family we had left. We were Isaac, pleading with God for Rebecca, and Jacob, refusing to be consoled over Joseph.
But we have also been Cain, failing to realize that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers. We have been Jacob, swindling Esau, and Esau, vowing to kill Jacob. We have been the brothers casting Joseph down into a pit having decided not to kill him. We have broken our father, Jacob’s, heart.
There have been moments of ecstasy, of transcendence. We were Eve, overcome with awe at the act of birthing, exclaiming, “I have acquired a child with God!” We were Abraham, unable to number the stars in the sky, or the blessings that would come to him. We were Esau, gulping down the best bowl of stew we’ve ever eaten, in that moment, worth more to us than anything else in the world. We were Jacob, declaring in the morning, “God is in this place, and I did not know it!”
We’ve now reached the end of the book. We’re standing on the precipice on Exodus. Starting next week, things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better. We’ve got slavery and the murder of our children waiting for us. We’ve got to live through all of that before we’ll get redemption and return.
Knowing what lies ahead and knowing what we’ve been through, this week’s parashah offers blessings. The first blessing we receive is one we invoke to this very day on our own children: “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Both of Joseph’s children receive this blessing, together. It does not matter that, just before this, they all learn that Ephraim will be greater than Manasseh, that the second son will be more numerous than the firstborn. We do not repeat the story of fraternal conflict. These brothers can root for each other. These brothers can both receive Jacob’s blessing.
To the extent that these children are wishes, hopes for the future, just as their blessings are, it makes sense that Ephraim should receive the greater share. Faced with bad and good, destruction of his old identity and creation of his life in Egypt, Joseph named his two sons accordingly. His firstborn, Manasseh, was named with Joseph saying, “God has made me forget my hardship and the house of my father.” Joseph looks back on all that has come before him and tries to erase it, to blot it out, to embrace the now and forget the past. He then names Ephraim, saying, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” With the birth of Ephraim, Joseph recognizes his pain, lives with his pain, and still finds blessing.
Jacob will show a preference for Ephraim, for holding the past twelve parashot, the past twelve weeks, with us, even as we look to find the good, the potential in today. But Jacob will still bless Manasseh; Jacob will allow us to forget, to release, to move on from our suffering and our mistakes in order to keep moving forward. Jacob will go on to offer his benedictions to all of his children, his acknowledgements of their wrongdoings and his hopes for their future. We need to hear both now. We’ve come a long way and we have a long way left to go.