The man who saw too much — and too little


By Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser

Special to WJW

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

This week, our Torah teaches us a lesson about a patriarch who has trouble seeing.

In just a few verses, we are given conflicting reports about the state of Jacob’s vision. Joseph learns that his father is near death, and he goes to him along with his sons Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:8-10). “And Israel saw Joseph’s sons and he said, ‘Who are these?’ And Joseph said to his father, ‘They are my sons whom God has given me here.’ And he said, ‘Fetch them, pray, to me, that I may bless them.’ And Israel’s eyes had grown heavy with age, he couldn’t see.”

The same verb is used in opposition. This contradiction depicts Jacob’s life. When he was young, Jacob saw his mother favor and help him steal a blessing from his twin brother, Esau. He saw his uncle Laban deceive him and give him the wrong bride. He saw blood on the coat of his son Joseph and assumed he was dead. He saw in a dream angels traveling down and up a ladder to the heavens. He saw a strange man approach and then wrestle with him all night. Jacob saw the full spectrum of life’s complexities. But when he saw that his grandchildren had arrived to receive his blessing, it is then that we read Jacob couldn’t see.

Seeing has two meanings. One is physical. With the help of light, our eyes perceive shape and depth to make sense of the world around us. The other meaning of to see is to understand. At the end of his life, Jacob is able to see at least a little. If he cannot see his grandsons clearly in focus, he senses that they are physically present.

Therefore, what Jacob does not see is how the blessings he is about to impart to his grandsons and then to his sons are divisive, threatening to cause more discord among his offspring.

First, Jacob blesses Ephraim, the younger, over Menashe the older. The dynamic of one brother being blessed over the other, which Jacob experienced in his youth, continues. He does not see how his words could cause the same pain that twice tore apart his family — first with his brother and then with his sons.

Then, Jacob calls his sons to him and gives them each a blessing. I use the word “blessing” loosely, for Jacob raises up some of his sons and knocks others down. Couldn’t he see that these words, these divisions, could continue to perpetuate great harm to his children?

Why couldn’t Jacob see? Why are we so often unable to see the big picture? That is what it means to be human. Just when we think we’ve solved one piece of the puzzle, another gap, another deficiency comes into focus.

So what can we learn from Jacob and his life?

We learn that the work of learning, of striving, of improving, is never finished. We learn that we will continue to make mistakes no matter how hard we try. Sometimes we see and sometimes we don’t.

Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser leads Temple Emanuel in Kensington.

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