Jacob deathbed

Jacob holds grudges
Reuben, Simeon, Levi
All incur dad’s wrath

He still picks favorites
The brothers will praise Judah
God will bless Joseph

Chapter 49 of Genesis contains the final words of Jacob on his deathbed, with each son (except Simeon and Levi) addressed individually. Of particular note are the longer sections devoted to the five sons mentioned in this week’s haiku.

Reuben, the first born, is told “You shall excel no longer, for when you mounted your father’s bed you brought disgrace” (Gen 49-4). Jacob is referring when, in his father’s absence, “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” (Gen 35:22).

Jacob continues, “Simeon and Levi are a pair, their weapons are tools of lawlessness“. (Gen 49:5). Jacob is remembering what happened at Shechem (Gen 34) when the brothers avenged the rape of Dinah. The JPS Commentary says Jacob was furious at the time of the incident because he feared for the safety of the family, but is now ready to render a moral verdict.

Even in the hours before his death, Jacob cannot forgive these three sons for their offenses against him. But the words spoken to Judah and Joseph are of a different tone.

Judah’s brothers “shall praise” and “bow low” to him. (Gen 49:8). Forgotten, it seems, is the near humiliation of Judah by his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) although perhaps Judah is worthy of praise because, in the end, he admitted Tamar was “more in the right than I” (Gen: 38:26). Jacob’s praise of his fourth oldest son might also come from Judah’s promise to protect Benjamin in Egypt (Gen 49:8-10) and the leadership role he played in the interactions with Joseph before the brothers knew his identity.

Finally, we come to Joseph, still his father’s favorite. Jacob adopts his grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh (48:5) and gives a double portion of his inheritance to Joseph (Gen 48:22). God is not mentioned in Jacob’s words to his sons except when he is speaking to Joseph (Gen 48:22-16), where at least five different references are made – “Mighty One of Jacob”, “Shepherd”, “Rock of Israel”, “God of your father”, and “Shaddai who blesses you”.

We often note the human flaws in our ancestors, taking away the lesson that we need not achieve perfection. It’s okay to struggle, as did the very human personalities in Torah, so long as we try to do the right thing. Certainly Jacob’s final words to his sons reflect our patriarch’s imperfections, still holding grudges and picking favorites as his life ends.

With this week’s portion we conclude Bereshit, the first Book of Torah, so we say, “Chazak, chazak, v’nitchzek” – May we be strong, and may we gain strength from one another.


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