The parasha for this week is Vayechi - 'and he lived' - referring to the last 17 years of Jacob's life and the reconciliation of his sons in Egypt. Jacob gives a special blessing to each of his sons as well as to Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the first two biblical siblings to live together in peace (this is the source for the blessing we give our children on Erev Shabbat and festivals; girls are blessed with "May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah" - the matriarchs of our people).
Blessing is not the same as praise...when we bless our children (or each other), we are, in essence, offering a prayer and support for the individual to live up to his/her full potential.
Near the beginning of the beginning (Beresheet/Genesis), the Torah shares with us the story of the first sibling rivalry ending with Cain murdering Abel. Sibling rivalries continued with Jacob and Esau and with Joseph and his brothers. Here, at the conclusion of Beresheet/Genesis, the siblings have learned to live together in peace, the family has been reconciled, and we are ready to move on to the next phase in our development as a people. The great medieval scholar, Nachmanides (not to be confused with Maimonides) once taught that everything that happened to our ancestors is a sign post for us. Change can take a long time, and in our lifetime, we have been privileged to witness the building of bridges and understanding between Judaism and other religions and between Israel and other Middle Eastern nations, and hopefully you have experienced a level of healing in your own families and relationships. Perhaps what we learn in Parashat Vayechi will be true also of the human family - learning to reconcile and live, if not with love, then at least without conflict, and who knows - maybe one day, with love.
When we finish reading each book of Torah, the tradition is to chant: Chazak, chazak v'nitchazek/be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another! What a wonderful blessing - let us strengthen one another.
With another new year upon us, thought you might be interested to know that on the Jewish calendar, in addition to Rosh Hashanah (marking the anniversary of the creation of human beings), there are three other 'new years':
Tu B'shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (this year on Thursday, January 28th), is the New Year of the Trees, marking the tithing of the fruit trees, in essence, the world's first Earth Day! The third Jewish new year is the first of Nisan, the month in which we celebrate Passover. The Torah teaches that Nisan: " is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you" (this is why the Torah refers to Tishrei as the seventh month whereas we consider it to be the start of a new year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah). Our holy days and festivals, since antiquity, are counted from this 'new year' on the first of Elul, which also marks the beginning of the legal year with matters such as fulfilling contracts (vows, house rentals). The fourth 'new year' is the first of Elul, the time for tithing of cattle (if you own any, be sure to get those taxes in on time!).
As 2020 draws to a close, I am mindful of the challenges, the difficulties, the losses that we have all endured, as well as the blessings.