We are a choosing people

By Rabbi Nancy Kasten
Parashat Vayechi

Chapter 49 of the book of Genesis opens with Jacob’s summoning of his children to his bedside for words of farewell: “And Jacob called to his children and said, “Gather together and I will tell you what will unfold for you in days to come. Gather and listen, children of Jacob; listen to Israel your father.” What follows is a poem that addresses each of his sons in different and non-parallel ways, based on his assessment of their actions, strengths and weaknesses. Some receive words of blessing, while others are cursed. Some appear to be chosen for greatness, while others seem destined for disgrace or oblivion.

Yet in the end, the passage concludes, “All of these are the tribes of Israel, 12 of them. This is what their father said to all of them when he blessed them. Each one according to his blessedness he blessed them.”

As Jacob dies and the individual legacies of the Patriarchs are placed in the hands of the collective Israel, the Torah does not leave some of his sons (and by extension their descendants) to be eternally cursed and others to be eternally blessed. Rather, it reminds us that whatever they have done in the past or are capable of doing in the future, they still retain inherent blessedness, and they still are part of Israel. This conclusion implies that just as Jacob’s sons have chosen their actions during their father’s lifetime, some commendable and some contemptible, each is capable of reflecting or resisting their own blessedness and the blessedness of Israel with the choices they make after his death. 

Perhaps all the sons are affirmed, even the ones whom Jacob had just rebuked, because recounting their deeds reminds us of Jacob’s deeds as well. We may wonder: Should Jacob’s legacy be defined by the deeds he was proud of or those he regretted? We are comforted by reasoning that if human beings are created in the image of God, and God is blessed, then by extension all human beings must be blessed. As it says in Midrash Tanchuma: “‘I have found only this: that God made humankind noble (Kohelet 7:29).’ The Holy Blessed One, who is called righteous and noble, created humankind in God’s own image so that they be noble and righteous like God.” We can’t attribute righteousness and nobility to an imperfect Patriarch if we refuse to recognize their presence in others, even those whose deeds that Patriarch abhorred.

Jacob’s individual addresses to his sons threaten to make internecine strife eternal and inevitable. Indeed, they have been used by some to explain and even justify infighting within and between Jewish communities. But by adding an inclusive coda, the Torah reminds us that we are not only a chosen people, we are a choosing people. No one has to define themselves or be defined by unholy choices. Nor should we define others by theirs, since all of us make them. As legal scholar and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson, says in his book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Mr. Stevenson is not Jewish, but his understanding of human nature is rooted in Torah. As we prepare for a secular new year and new leadership in our country, we may be inclined to act like Jacob, labeling the deeds of others as worthy of blessing or curse. But if we leave it at that, we undermine our own potential as human beings created in the divine image. We are created with the ability to choose words and deeds that bring out the holy in ourselves and others. May each of us do our part to recognize holiness and blessing in ourselves and each other in 2021, for the good of our nation, our people and ourselves.

Rabbi Nancy Kasten is chief relationship officer of Faith Commons in Dallas.

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