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Vayechi Sermon

This week we read the final Torah portion of Genesis.  In it both Jacob and Joseph die.  Joseph dies at the portion’s conclusion.  Interestingly he is not buried in the land of Israel until the people are freed from Egypt over 400 years later after their slavery.  Jacob however is taken to the land immediately after his death.  The family travels there to bury him in Hebron’s Cave of Machpaleh.

Prior to this Jacob gathers his children together for a final blessing.  His words read more like prophecy than blessing.  Let’s look at a few of the words he offers to his children.

To his firstborn Reuben he says,
Reuben, you are my first born,
My might and first fruit of my vigor,
Exceeding in rank
And exceeding in honor.
Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer…

Simeon and Levi are a pair;
Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.
Let not my person be included in their council,
Let not my being counted in their assembly.
For when angry they slay men,
And when pleased they maim oxen….

At first glance we must admit that Jacob does not offer such kinds words to his sons.  Talk about a father who had unreasonable expectations of his children!  Or perhaps he was just being honest with his children about their faults.  Both of these blessings are actually connected to the sons’ earlier failures.  Simeon and Levi of course attacked Shechem after Dinah was raped.  They took the law into their own hands.

And to the fourth son, Judah, from whom we trace our lineage because it is from the tribe of Judah that we derive the term Jew, Jacob says these words:
You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise:
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you…
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet;
So that tribute shall come to him
And the homage of peoples be his.

Biblical scholars would suggest that these words were authored after the success or failures of the particular tribes could be seen.  They were not spoken by Jacob, but written later as his words.  But our question is not about the historical accuracy of the vision.  It is instead about the insights they offer into personality traits.

The Torah offers strong evidence that the descendants of Levi for example are given to anger.  Moses, the most famous of Levites, is the best example.  He is of course punished for hitting the rock in anger.  He is not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of this.  Is his example the realization of Jacob’s words to Levi?

Our question is thus about character.  How much of our nature is pre-wired?  What of our character is genetics?  We have come to learn a great deal about genetics.  We know that many diseases have genetic markers.  Even eating habits and metabolism have strong genetic components.  (Read last week’s New York Times magazine for more about this discussion about obesity and genetics.)

Are traits such as anger also pre-wired?  I am sure many parents have heard statements come from their mouths that they promised themselves as children they would never say as parents.  Then when they become parents they hear the words of their mother or father coming out of their mouths.  Is this a matter of wiring?  Or is it instead a matter of we can only learn how to be parents from our own parents?

Could it be true that so much of our personalities are pre-wired?  The Torah would seem to suggest yes.  The Levites are given to great anger.  Their fate is written in this week’s portion.  Every Levite who follows becomes living proof of Jacob’s prophecy.

One of my favorite novels, A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr Mani deals with this theme.  Despite everyone’s best efforts in this novel what happens to them appears pre-ordained.  The Israeli author is asking, can we really control our own destiny, can we really write a new history for the Jewish people?

In this view our lives become a futile attempt to fight against our destinies.  I however refuse to believe this.  And despite the Torah’s stories and Jacob’s prophecy, I would suggest that Judaism does not believe this as well.  We can indeed write our own destiny.  Even with the genetic cards stacked against us, even if we are wired to eating too much—or given too much anger—we can escape what is written for us, and write something different for ourselves.

This is the essence of what we are supposed to be doing on the High Holidays.  We don’t just pray and fast on those days.  We are supposed to do much more.  We are supposed to try to change ourselves, to improve ourselves, to write a new chapter for ourselves in a new year.

The temptation is to give in to our genes.  As we discover more and more about our wiring, this temptation will grow even stronger.  I can’t lose weight, we might say, it is in my genes.  My anger is not my fault; it is instead my father’s.  I can’t control myself, it is my addiction, it is written in my wiring.  We must fight this temptation. We must summon the willpower to write our own stories, rather than follow the script written by our ancestors, or that written by our biology.

There is a hidden message as well, concealed in this week’s Torah portion.  We read that Jacob also blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Jacob gives the younger of the two, Ephraim, the more favored blessing.  Jacob places his right hand, in ancient times the hand of power, on the youngest grandson.  This of course is contrary to the laws of inheritance.  It was always the oldest we received the greater blessing.  Joseph objects to his father’s choice, but Jacob insists that it is correct.  It is not because he is blind, as his son suggests.  He in fact sees very clearly.  The younger should receive greater blessings than the older.  Thus the expected story is rewritten by Jacob’s hands.

Most interesting, it is this blessing that we emulate when blessing our sons on Shabbat evening.  As we place our hands on their heads, we say, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”  In this blessing we even preserve the inverted order.  In each successive generation we affirm that the story is not always written from birth.  It is not wired by birth order, or even genetics.  It can be rewritten by our own hands.  That is what we say each and every time we place our hands on our children’s heads.  We say to our children, “You can write a different story for yourselves!”