Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26, Parshat Ha Shavua for Shabbat, Saturday, January 2, 2021

This week’s Torah portion brings the Book of Genesis to a close and with it the story of the Jewish people’s first family with all its conflicts and traumas. A central challenge for our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, mirrors our own: how do we pass on our most important values, particularly our Jewish values to our children and their children.
Here is one possible answer. A central Jewish religious commitment is the Shema: the assertion of singularity and unity of the Jewish vision of God. It is first found in Torah in Deuteronomy 6:4. But according to our sages in a midrash in Devarim Rabbah 2:35, it is first recited by Jacob’s sons as they surround him on his deathbed. In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob instructs his children, “Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father (Genesis 49:2).
Interpreting this verse, our sage said that, while lying on his deathbed, Jacob feared that his sons and their offspring would turn away from the God of Israel and worship other gods. “Maybe once I pass away, you will bow to another power?” he asked them. To reassure him, his son’s responded, “Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” Jacob responded in relief and gratitude, in a whisper: “Blessed be the glorious name of God forever.” Rabbi Levi said: “And what does Israel say to this day? ‘Listen our forefather Israel, the same thing that you commanded us still abides among us, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.'”
This midrash, written over 1,500 years ago, reminds that across the millenia Jewish parents and grandparents have been teaching their children the unity and the centrality of God. Even if a Jew is not religious, they can recognize the power of this message of unity of all things and the centrality of a moral vision as the foundation of a good life.
This Shabbat, and in the new year, it is good to be reminded by the example of Jacob: what do we value most and what do we want to pass on to our progeny?