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Parashat Vayehi

December 29, 2009

By Rabbi Michael G. Kohn

As we look at this parashah, I would like us to think about the message the Torah is giving us as parents. I have always had a difficult time with this parashah, first, because it focuses on the death of the last of our patriarchs. The description of Jacob’s “family” – in reality, his sons – gathered at his bedside is one familiar to most, if not all of us. At the death of my father of blessed memory almost 17 years ago, the scene played out almost as described in the Torah. First, my father spoke with two of his grandsons, as did Jacob, before speaking with his children. Then, he spoke with each of his children individually, though many of us were in the room together with him.

Which brings me to my second difficulty with this parashah. I am a parent and a grandparent and I often think about what I could – no, should – have done differently, or even what I should be doing today. This parashah speaks about parenting; and it says that we parent from the moment our first child is born till the moment we leave this world.

The Torah’s text says that Jacob called his children to his bedside: hei’asfu v’agidah lakhem et asher yikra lakhem b’aharit hayamim – “to tell you what will happen to you at the end of days”. That, of course, is not what he proceeded to do. Rashi, commenting on Gen. 49:1, writes that “the Shekhinah departed from him and [so Jacob] began talking of other things.”

Instead, Jacob speaks to his sons – one by one – and tells each of them what their character and behavior will bring them. Perhaps, one more attempt to make them see the light? But the Torah says: v’zot asher diber lahem avihem va’yivarekh otam – “And this is what their father spoke to them when he blessed them; he blessed them each with his own blessing”. Though Jacob’s words don’t read as words of blessing, those words ascribed to each of his sons – and through them to their tribes yet to come – are the traits that would allow them to succeed upon entering the land of Israel.

So, what can we learn from all of this? And what can we do with what we have learned? It is certainly easier to teach children when they are younger and more impressionable. With his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasseh, Jacob’s blessing was that their character should serve as an example for sons in generations yet unborn.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piasecna (in Poland), wrote in his introduction to A Student’s Obligation – Advice from the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto that “the most essential task of education is to teach in such a way that the child will not stray from the path we have set for him, even when he grows older and is no longer under his [parents’] supervision.” And in To Heal the Soul – The Spiritual Journal of a Chassidic Rebbe, he writes that:

“But suddenly . . . we are gone . . . taken back into the womb of God. [R]ecord your inner life in a journal . . . to engrave your soul-portrait on paper. . . . This way your very essence, the personality of your soul . . . will live on forever in the lives of your spiritual heirs as generations come and go.”

Putting these two thoughts together and you have the essence of an ethical will.

Some, perhaps many, Jews are familiar with the concept of an ethical will. A primarily Jewish tradition, copies of written ethical wills have been found which date to the 12th century C.E. These wills do not pass on to heirs money, jewelry, or property; rather, they pass on something much more precious and rare – one’s values, ideas and reflections on what is truly important in living a good (and a good Jewish) life. An ethical will is what Jacob passed on to his children and to their descendants.

We never know when our day will come. And these days, many are having children later – sometimes much later, in their lives. What if we are not there to guide them into adulthood and beyond? With an ethical will, we can seek to assure that our descendants know what values we held and, hopefully, live by them and pass them on to the next generation. We all should consider writing an ethical will. It is never to late to do so, and it certainly is never to soon to begin. With the end of this parashah, the era of our patriarchs and matriarchs has ended, but the story of the Jewish people continues on in Sefer Shemot – the Book of Exodus – and beyond. With an ethical will, each of our stories – and our values – will continue to live on as well.


Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained by AJR in May 2009.