A Blessing for the End of the Year

In this week’s Torah portion, Vay’chi, our patriarch Jacob reaches the end of his life. In his final days, he is surrounded by his sons and grandsons, offering each of them a unique blessing. Afterward, he passes away. 

At the outset it seems like a beautiful idea and moment: What could be a more meaningful final goodbye than to receive good wishes from a parental figure? 

The blessings, however, are … a bit strange. While some seem positive: “You, Judah: your brothers shall heap praise on you…” (49:8), “Zebulun shall dwell at the seashore, he will be a harbor for ships,” (49:13), others are distinctly negative: “Simeon and Levi are partners; instruments of violence are their plan. Let me not enter their council…” (49:5-6). 

Perhaps “a deep hope or wish” is not the way to understand these blessings. Perhaps the power of these blessings is that Jacob, despite his physical blindness, is able to truly see the character of each of his sons. His words speak to who they are, what they have lived through and done—not who they could be if things were different. 

Perhaps his words are a different type of blessing: a way to elevate the moment by naming what is. Think not of the Priestly Blessing, which expresses a wish for us to experience safety and peace, but of the blessings we said when lighting Hanukkah candles: a way to make the moment special. 

When Jacob describes each of his sons as they are, he recognizes them. His last words aren’t a suggestion that they all be kind and good—something they might not be able to live up to. Instead, his last words reflect the time they shared together. 

As we prepare to “close the book” on 2023, perhaps we can learn from Jacob. Let us not spend time being wistful about the peace we did not see. Instead, let us look back at what was: moments of family celebrations and personal joys alongside our collective sorrow. Let us name it, and let that blessing be enough. Next week, next year, we begin again. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Rabbi Sam