The culmination of ספר בראשית, the book of Bereishit, brings the life of יעקב, Yakov, and יוסף, Yosef, to a close. As he sees his final days ahead, יעקב takes time to give blessings and words of direction to his grandchildren and children. Surprising, the only grandchildren that are part of this story is that of יוסף. Why does the Torah highlight only them at the exclusion of all those who traveled down with him to Egypt? Were they not worthy of blessing as well?
Many biblical commentators highlight how יוסף’s story, and that of his children, were starkly different than their predecessors. For the first time, Jews were actively living and growing their families in a predominantly secular and unfamiliar environment. יוסף, faced with many traps and distractions, was forced to make decision after decision regarding what kind of person he would be and, in turn, what example he would share with his children.
Throughout the story of יוסף and his brothers, we find ourselves connecting, relating and seeing ourselves in יוסף’s image. As Jewish people who live in the world at large, we are often faced with tough questions. Do we dress, act and present ourselves as Jews or do we assimilate and conform to the trends of the time? Do we make Jewish learning and identity formation a pillar of our family structure through our commitment to Jewish education in and outside of our homes? Do we make conscious choices to live an authentic and unapologetic Jewish existence as the Torah dictates or do we conform to the pressures we face all around us? At every turn, יוסף was faced with similar challenges that had national implications.
In one of Rashi’s famous comments, he explains that at the moment with פוטיפר’s, Potifar’s, wife tried to seduce יוסף, the image of his father appeared reminding him of his core values and resulting in יוסף running from the house of his employer and ultimately landing him in jail. יוסף lived a troubled, complex, and convoluted life in the similar vein to his father. His flaws, as Rashi explains, included haughtiness, vanity and the inability to bring people together with a common goal. Yet, thousands of years later, we still mention יוסף’s childrens names when we bless our children each Friday night. What message are we meant to pass on to our children and what impact is this blessing’s text meant to impart to us?
הַמַּלְאָךְ֩ הַגֹּאֵ֨ל אֹתִ֜י מִכׇּל־רָ֗ע יְבָרֵךְ֮ אֶת־הַנְּעָרִים֒ וְיִקָּרֵ֤א בָהֶם֙ שְׁמִ֔י וְשֵׁ֥ם אֲבֹתַ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם וְיִצְחָ֑ק וְיִדְגּ֥וּ לָרֹ֖ב בְּקֶ֥רֶב הָאָֽרֶץ
“The angel who has redeemed me from harm, may he bless our children and call them by my name and the name of our forefathers Avraham and Yitzchak and in turn they will be fruitful and many in this world.” - Bereishit 48:16
The text of the blessing that is given to יוסף’s sons and, in turn, is the song we customarily sing to our children each night and during Simchat Torah, brings clarity to our question. A name is more than just a nice sounding word. A name imbues essence, sharing the dreams and hopes of a parent to their child. A name defines who we are, what we stand for and how we are to reach those objectives. Hashem is informing יוסף and all Jews thereafter that a commitment to Judaism, to a way of life full of meaning and purpose is the key to our nation's longevity and survival.
When we make Hashem a part of our vernacular, when we speak to our children about our Jewish history beginning in בראשית and culminating in the modern state of Israel, when we make the time in our week to learn Hashem’s Torah we are tethering ourselves to the Jewish core and identity that began in ספר בראשית and still lives on through us. We are making connections that have and will last a lifetime.
This week’s torah portion, פרשת ויחי, Parshat Vayechi, the parsha of life and living is not about the end of life, rather, it is the map that depicts how life should be lived. This week, and every week thereafter, take a few extra moments to share that blessing with our children, to speak about the parsha, the values we strive for and the ways that we live those each day. We can’t expect our children to grow into strong, grounded and dedicated Jews if we are not actively making the time to show them what that looks like. It is a heavy burden indeed. יוסף struggled with how to keep Jewish children and grandchildren Jewish the same way that we are now. His solution? Lean into our identity and values and make sure our children experience them daily.