A father’s dying wish


This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 – 50:26.

While this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, tells the story of a great man’s death, it is very much a teaching about life.

The name of the parsha hints at this, as vayechi means and he lived. The he in question was the patriarch, Jacob. To understand the lessons imparted by his death requires us to travel back in time, to the months preceding his birth.

There, we find Jacob struggling with his brother Esau, as the two shared their mother’s womb. According to the Torah, their rivalry continued through birth. We read in Genesis that Jacob clung to his brother’s heel, attempting to pull him back into the womb, so that Jacob himself could be born first (Jacob’s Hebrew name, Yakov, means heel-catcher. or supplanter — a reference to this scene.


It seems that Jacob felt vulnerable from his first day, afraid that there would not be enough for him.

He wasn’t wrong. The ancient world privileged the firstborn son. In the Deuteronomy, we learn that the firstborn son was entitled to a double portion of his father’s inheritance. However, Jacob’s struggles were not limited to material security. In Genesis 25:28 we read: “Isaac loved Esau (more), because he ate of his venison.” In Jacob’s early life, love and wealth must have felt like scarce commodities.

Jacob’s family challenges would continue, even as his father neared death. It was then, frail and blind, that Isaac called out for Esau, his firstborn son, to come and receive his final blessing. How excruciating it must have been for Jacob to learn that his father’s dying wish was to bless Esau alone.

At his mother’s request, Isaac deceived his father and acquired his brother’s blessing for himself. The decision would rupture their family and forever alter the course of Esau and Jacob’s lives.

Jacob would rebuild and go on to have children of his own. But, his family remained dysfunctional. Like his own father, Jacob had a favorite son, Joseph, whom he lavished with special gifts. And much like Jacob, his own children responded with jealousy, lies and deception. They sold Joseph into slavery and tricked their father into believing he had died. History seemed to repeating itself. But, in this week’s Torah portion, the pattern was broken.

Here, in this week’s parsha, we find Jacob in his final moments of life, calling all of his sons close — not only his beloved Joseph or his firstborn, Reuben. Even more striking, Genesis 28:49 reads: “Each one according to his blessing, he (Jacob) blessed them.”

His actions represent a stark break from his father’s legacy and the practices of the day. Jacob’s blessings were not reserved for the oldest or the smartest, the most ruthless or conniving, but for all his sons. Jacob understood that there was enough to go around. It is a lesson with deep implications for our own families and our society at large. Let us continue Jacob’s work into the new year, bringing equality, love and abundance to all.

A note here: While Jacob widened his circle of blessing to include all 12 of his sons, his daughter, Dina, is missing from the story. Her absence is a painful reminder that Jacob’s work is not yet complete. There are many blessings still to give.

Rabbi James Kahn is the director of Liberty, a medical cannabis dispensary, in Rockville.

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