[JOI Word of Torah] Big Tent Judaism: Vayechi
Kerry M. Olitzky
KOlitzky at joi.org
Wed Jan 3 15:30:26 GMT 2007
"Big Tent Judaism" Word of Torah
January 6, 2007/16 Tevet 5767
This Torah portion is about life even if it commences with Jacob's deathbed
blessing of his grandchildren and concludes with the death of Joseph. While
there is sadness when a person dies even after living a good, long life,
there is also a place for celebration-perhaps better phrased as reflection.
We are thankful for the time shared, the values transmitted. It can be an
acknowledgment of leaving the earth in a better place than it was when we
began our journey on it because of what we did during our years of sojourn.
And our desire to create an inclusive Jewish community, one in which all
will feel welcome, is about these values and the life of the Jewish
The highlight of the portion is contained in Jacob's words of blessing.
Jacob blesses his grandchildren with the well-known redemptive blessing of
hamalakh hagoel (literally, the redeeming angel): "May the angel who
redeemed me from all evil, bless these boys. Let my reputation be their
name, and the name of my ancestors Abraham and Isaac. Let them grow into a
multitude in the midst of the earth" (Gen. 48:16). I think about this text,
in particular on Saturday evening just before making havdalah since it is
included in the concluding liturgy for Shabbat. As I focus on the prayers I
know that I'll soon be able to call my own sons-with whom I have not been in
touch during Shabbat. It also raises a measure of empathy in me for Jacob.
The grandchildren whom Jacob blessed were Ephraim and Manasseh-the children
of Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asnat, the children in whose names parents
have been asking for blessing of their sons on Shabbat for countless
After a busy week, often fraught with anxiety, stress and the
emotionally-charged exchanges that typify the relationship between most
parents and children, this moment of blessing is especially poignant and
particularly optimistic. For a brief time, children are reminded of their
parents' love for them. And parents are reminded of the promise that
children hold for the entire world. These are moments filled with profound
love and optimism. And in the midst of an unfolding Shabbat, we are truly
given a glimpse of the world-to-come and the possibilities it holds for all
These words, "May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh," followed by the
familiar three-fold priestly blessing, "May God bless you and keep you. . .
," are among the most loving that a parent can offer. While the words are
shaped entirely by Jewish tradition, they are formed in the heart of a
parent as they ask for Divine blessing for their children, inviting God to
help their children fulfill their dreams even as the protective and
nurturing Divine spirit hovers over them.
By accepting Joseph's children as his own, Jacob acts to continue the line
of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs). The Bible is not concerned with
Asnat's particular family of origin for she, like so many like her who live
in our midst in today's community, chose to cast her lot with the Jewish
people, voluntarily establish a Jewish home and raise Jewish children.
Joseph's family did not distance her or withhold their love for her or their
children because of her non-Jewish origins. I wonder why we as a community
today don't do the same for those who have married into Judaism and joined
the ranks of our families and communities. For her act of love, we have
rewarded her with blessing-and included our children-but it is really she
who has blessed us.
As I think about the demographic challenges that the American Jewish
community is facing, I wonder what redemptive angels will appear in our
Dr. Kerry M. Olitzky
Jewish Outreach Institute
1270 Broadway, Suite 609
New York, NY 10001
JOI's National Conference: Opening the Tent: Visions and Practices for a
More Inclusive Jewish Community will be held October 14-16, 2007 in
Washington, DC. Visit our conference website for up-to-date information
For conference pre-registration, please contact Denyse Gregoire, conference
coordinator at DGregoire at JOI.org.
JOI-2007-Celebrating our 20th year of Transforming Lives, Transforming
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You are welcome to use these ideas in your own work and writings as long as
you would be so kind as to credit Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and the Jewish
Outreach Institute, thank you.
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