Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)

Discovering Your Inner Youth

It is the end of an era. Jacob has finally been reunited with his beloved Joseph and he lives the final seventeen years of his life in peace, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Joseph had two sons in Egypt and now Jacob, soon to die, talks to Joseph about them.

Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine… (Gen. 48:5)

Jacob says that Joseph’s Egyptian born sons don’t belong to their father (Joseph), they belong to their grandfather (Jacob). This seems odd because Jacob had nothing to do with these children until they were grown up. Joseph had educated them and was successful in instilling in them an understanding that they were an integral part of what would be the Jewish narrative. Jacob couldn’t take credit for the Jewish education these boys had because he hadn’t been part of their lives until recently. Being as Jacob had no involvement with their upbringing, why does he say they belong to him?

The answer presents a novel idea in what is expected of a Jewish parent. It is not enough to give children a rudimentary Jewish education and expose them to a few rituals when they are young, the expectation is to make them lifetime Jews who carry our message. Imagine two teenage boys with an extremely wealthy father who is also the second most powerful person in Egypt. Wine, women, and any other desire a teenage boy would want could have been at their beck and call. Throughout history princes have been known to use their status to their benefit and one would have expected that these boys would be no different. But they were. How?

Joseph obviously invested much time and thought into their upbringing by teaching them in a practical and meaningful way—one that spoke to them. He taught them that they are part of a chain beginning with Abraham and Sara and they were tasked to continue that chain because those after them would be a light to the rest of the world. Their life had purpose and they saw a father who lived it and felt responsible not only to the people in his country but also to feed those in surrounding lands. It was unheard of in the ancient world to feel a moral obligation to people who weren’t your family or residents of your country but Joseph did. They observed a father with a unique outlook in life, one much different than the unrestrained idol worshiping regime surrounding them.

The reason Joseph was able to successfully raise children who identified with him rather than their surroundings was because of the education and experiences he had received from his father (Jacob). Joseph was plucked away from Jacob when he was seventeen but he never forgot who he was or the family from which he came. There are numerous accounts of teens, and even children, during the Holocaust who say that the memory of their mother lighting Shabbos candles and the look of peace and serenity on her face while doing so, is what kept them going and also was the balm needed after the war enabling them to decide to raise a Jewish family after the horrors they had witnessed. 

When Jacob said ‘these two sons are mine’ he was giving a message; the reason you (Joseph) were able to raise your boys the way you did was because of the Judaism I instilled in you. Ultimately, even though Jacob didn’t participate in raising his Egyptian born grandsons, he had left his mark on their father and that is how wealthy, educated, and powerful teenagers were able to retain the integrity of their family’s message.

How about us? Many of us were not raised with a Jewish education and others have negative connotations regarding the Judaism of their youth. How can we instill something we don’t have or what can we do if our children are grown up? The wise Solomon gives us an answer.

Educate the youth according to his way, (then) when he grows old, he will not swerve from it. (Proverbs 22:5) The simple meaning is that one should be aware and sensitive that each child has his or her own natural proclivities and use them for the child’s advantage and do whatever it takes to educate the child so that when he is old, he will not deviate. But there’s another, more novel way to interpret this verse. It is speaking directly to you; educate the youth inside you according to the proper way. No matter how old you are, view yourself as teachable, and then go out and learn how to be Jewish.

Learn Hebrew, learn the depth of the stories that have been the Jewish narrative for centuries and continue to inspire people through challenges we all live with. Learn how not to be scared to look at your inner self and discover that gems rather than negativity emerge. Learn the works of the great Chassidic masters and find out how much G-d believes in you even when you don’t believe in yourself. Learn how to be resilient and that you are special and have a special place in the world. If not, G-d would not have created you.

Jacob was successful in raising a son who imbibed the Jewish message and he (Joseph) understood it so deeply that he was able to raise his two loyal children in an environment foreign to everything their family held precious. Being a parent carries much responsibility and being Jewish parent entails the mandate to raise children who believe in and trust the same message that Jacob transmitted to Joseph. As for the rest of us, train your inner—i.e., youthful—self. No one is over the hill. We need to educate ourselves so that as we get older, we get better and the method for doing so is to find meaning and purpose in the eternal Jewish message. Our tiny people have been a light to the world for centuries and now it’s our turn. Turn yourself into a light, no matter how old or worn out you feel. Even if you think you’re living in “Egypt,” i.e., a spiritual and emotionally dark place, educate yourself and learn how to escape and join Jacob’s family—your family. There’s never been a better time to embrace and benefit from your birthright.  

Good Shabbos