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Jacob & Sons: Parashat VaYehi 5763

16 Tevet 5763

VaYehi is a sad parasha. You can say that again! Vayehi is a sad parasha. First, we have Jacob dying (boo-hoo), and then we have Joseph dying (boo-hoo). It’s all one big funeral. However, this parasha does have several interesting aspects. One is this whole blessing thing. I mean, we read the whole story about Jacob dying and giving the blessing to his grandsons from Joseph instead of to the brothers, and how he switches his hands, so the younger boy (Efraim) gets the firstborn’s (Menashe’s) blessing, and we go, “What!?”

Well the truth about that is, it’s not just a problem of favoritism running in the family, although I would say that is a part of it. It’s actually also another motion to overthrow the custom at that time of the first-born getting the better blessing and inheritance. This is taking off from Isaac’s switched blessings, when he is tricked into giving the younger son, Jacob, the first-born’s, Esav’s, greater blessing. As Jews, we stick to the idea that if there’s a custom, social institution, or law we think is wrong, it’s our divine duty to whine about it, or in this case, even disobey it. The big shots may not like it, but it is our duty to stick up for what we believe is right.

For example, in the 1950’s when integrated housing was not considered a likelihood, my great grandfather, Ed Tilsen, and my grandfather, Bob Tilsen, built a housing project and said it had to be integrated. Some people said it could not be done, and some said it should not be done. Most people expected the property’s value to go down, because when the white residents learned about who their neighbors were going to be, people were sure they would move out. My great grandfather countered this problem by guaranteeing that the property’s value would not go down as long as they did not sell their houses. This was a step forward in civil rights in an era when such a thing was unthinkable, and it ended up being successful; not a single person sold their house, and the property’s value actually went up. This was the first private integrated housing project in the U.S.

Another example from my family is the work of my grandmother, Evelyn Benson. She did research and wrote a book on a category of heroines that are for the most part ignored — Jewish nurses. Jewish women are not expected by most Americans to become nurses, and Bobie challenged the incorrect notion that Jewish women are not a part of nursing.

My grandmother, great grandfather and grandfather, just like Jacob, stood up for what they believed.

Something else that I find interesting (or a better word for it, sad) about this parasha is the message that the brothers deliver to Joseph. They tell Joseph that Jacob commanded them to ask him for forgiveness. They say,

Please forgive the sin of your brothers and their missing the mark when they wronged you and now, please forgive the sin of the servants of the God of your father.

Genesis 50:15-17

This is a total manipulation of Joseph in so many ways. They are trying to ensure that Joseph does not harm them by taking revenge. This is probably a lie inspired by fear. No where else in the text of the Torah do we hear Jacob say this to the brothers. Also, they are trying to connect themselves to God and Jacob. This sounds like they are trying to butter him up, by using the names of people Joseph cares for. Worst of all, they are lying, and admit in their lie that Jacob had to command them to ask Joseph for forgiveness. They are not being sincere about their repentance. This whole episode merely shows the size of the gap between the brothers, even now.

I believe that this is an example of what not to do, and of the serious effects that things brothers and sisters do to one another can have on a relationship. It’s sad that the brothers thought Joseph would turn on them like that, even considering what had gone before. I mean, they’re still brothers, and they should love each other. I know that on the extremely rare ocassion when I fight with my brother, it’s only a matter of time before we make up; Tsvi and I never hold onto grudges that long. This kind of thing destroys a healthy relationship. Siblings can still play together, even after they fight. It is important to say sorry when you do something wrong, because it makes you miserable when you don’t, and you miss out on all the fun activities you could do with them if you just made up. I think it is really important to maintain open communication between family members so that the gap between you closes.

Shabbat Shalom, and don’t worry, qiddush is not far away.


See The Gilah Benson-Tilsen Fund for Youth at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel



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