All In The Family

Jacob's decision to bless each of his sons individually highlights the need to balance unity with diversity.

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Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.

Has there ever been a more dysfunctional family recorded in history than ours? Probably, but the fact that our forebears were distinctly human is a source of comfort and strength, both offering us guidance in what to do (and what not to do) and validating the challenges of our day-to-day lives. Parashat Vayehi gives the notion of family, and the diversity therein, great clarity.

His family reunited, Jacob calls his sons together for a fond (mostly) farewell. Each receives a blessing of sorts, or at least a bird's eye view into his future.

Genesis 49:1-27

Jacob called his sons and said, "Gather together that I may declare to you what lies before you in time to come.

Gather around, sons of Jacob, and listen; listen to Israel your father."

Reuben, you are my first-born... you shall not be foremost, for you mounted your father's bed...

paper chain of familySimon and Levi are brothers, they carried out their malicious plans.... I will scatter them among Israel.

Judah, your brothers shall praise you...

Zebulon lives by the shore of the sea...

Isachar is a strong ass.... He became a slave to forced labor.

Dan is a judge of his people....

Gad, robbers rob him, and he, he robs and pursues them.

Asher, his bread is rich, he provides food fit for a king.

Naphtali is a swift hind, dropping beautiful fawns.

Joseph is a fruitful creeper near the spring.... May [blessings] descend on Joseph's head...

Benjamin is a ravening wolf....

Torah Navigator

1. We can look at each of Jacob's sons, the 12 tribes of Israel and assign 12 different personality types to our students, or even twelve different ways that each student may present him or herself at any given time. What can we learn from Jacob's approach that we can import into our own life's work?

2. How do we not only effectively master the balance between communal and individual needs in our work, but also model and teach that challenge to our students who will often find themselves in the same position? (For an interesting insight on this question, see page 256 in The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean)

3. The more difficult challenge may actually be rendering all the individual personalities into a single klal, or whole. The United States Army is now changing its slogan from "Be all that you can be" to "An army of one," responding to the powerful force of individualism in our society. What links us together? Is it religion? Culture? Anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote that "sacred symbols synthesize a people's ethos." How can we present these symbols as personally meaningful as well as communally binding?

4. As the last parashah in the book of Bereshit, we conclude the reading of Parashat Vayehi with the words, "Hazak, hazak, v'nithazek," "Be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another." How does the Torah answer our questions about the source of that strength?

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Rabbi Elyse Winick

Rabbi Elyse Winick is Associate Director of KOACH.