All In The Family
Jacob's decision to bless each of his sons individually highlights the need to balance unity with diversity.
Jacob speaks to each son individually, offering a comment on that son's strengths, gifts and abilities, and in some cases, weaknesses. It would have been far easier to offer a generalized hope for their futures, but Jacob opts to make the moment personally meaningful for each son.
I'm reminded of the recent New York Times obituary for Millicent McIntosh, former president of Barnard College, who completed her life's work last week at the ripe old age of 102. The obituary noted that she initially sent each of her five children to a different school, reflecting each child's needs and personality. She gave up one year, after attending five different Christmas pageants at five different schools and thinking she couldn't bear to hear "Silent Night" even one more time. The children were consolidated into a single school. At that point the needs of the family as a whole needed to supercede the needs of the individual.
Whether we are talking about five, 12 or more, the effort to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group is ongoing. We are most effective when we can make the moment personally meaningful, but we are lost if we do so to the detriment of establishing a connection to the larger whole.
It's funny to think of Parashat Vayehi as the end of the beginning. It is the end of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but it is the precursor to the experience of enslavement and exodus. (See the Semisonic's song "Closing Time"--"every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.")
We begin the enslavement experience as individuals, represented by Jacob's twelve sons and even after years of bondage, we leave Egypt as an erev rav, a mixed multitude. The incorporating experience which focuses more attention on the "Israel" in our name rather than the "b'nei" (as in b'nei Israel, the children of Israel) is the revelation at Sinai.
Even at Sinai, the midrash tells us, God spoke in one voice, but each person heard God's words in a way that was personally meaningful. Jacob's parting words are a foreshadowing of that moment, an understanding that unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive. They are a charge to us to leave no member of our extended family behind as we grow forward, together, toward a greater good.
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