Texts and beliefs By Matt Plen 22nd Dec 2015

At the core of Parashat Vayechi are Jacob’s dying blessings for his sons.  Actually the word ‘blessings’ here is a misnomer, or at the very least a deep irony, as most of Jacob’s words contain some extremely blunt feedback.

Jacob’s deathbed desire to confront his sons in this way can be read in two ways.  Perhaps he is passing final judgement on his sons’ characters, forcing them to submit to some form of moral justice by facing up to what they are and who they have become.  Alternatively, could he be motivated by the possibility that his sons might still have the capacity to undergo personal change?

This duality is echoed by two striking parallels between this week’s narrative and incidents in Jacob’s earlier life.  When Joseph brings his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to receive his father’s blessing, Jacob crosses his hands and gives the first-born blessing to the younger son.  What could more clearly mirror Jacob’s theft of his father’s blessing from his brother, Esau?  The parashah opens with Jacob’s plea to Joseph not to bury him in Egypt, but to return his body to the family’s ancestral burial place in Hebron.  Here Jacob explains his reasons in terms of his biography: when his beloved wife Rachel died, he did not even try to lay her to rest in the family plot, but buried her by the side of the road.

Both acts involve what seem to be unresolved emotional issues.  Jacob’s insistence on giving the younger son the older one’s blessing seems to reflect a repetition compulsion, in which he repeats the mistakes of the past that led to so much pain within his family.  In contrast, his desire to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah represents an attempt to relive the past in a different way, to correct his mistakes.

These episodes raise an important question about education and parenting.  Is it desirable – or even possible – to shape our children in line with our own values, or must we resign ourselves to merely bringing out their innate, perhaps unalterable, characteristics? This question is taken up in a different context by the classical commentators on an ambiguous verse from Proverbs (22:6): “Train a youth according to his path; even when he gets old, he will not depart from it.”  Rashi takes this to mean that a child is an empty vessel.  Our responsibility is to instil correct modes of behaviour from an early age; this will form habits and ensure the child’s lifelong moral character.  The 19th century scholar Malbim takes a different approach.  He believes a child can be educated only in line with his or her innate potential.  If you do that, this training will last a lifetime, but nothing can successfully be taught which is alien to a child’s own nature.

Are our characters fixed or malleable? Are we trapped by the past or can we break free to reshape our lives?  We usually consider ‘child-centred’ education to be more progressive, but can focusing on who a child seems to be at too early an age become restrictive, even oppressive?  Conversely, while the attempt to shape (or reshape) a child’s character involves a top-down, authoritarian view of education, it also implies a more open, dynamic view of human nature.

Parenting is an attempt to do several contradictory things simultaneously: seeing who our children really are while refusing to assume this is all they can ever be, and trying to impart values while resisting the urge to shape them in our image.  Perhaps Jacob’s ambivalence reflects his attempt, late in life, to wrestle with this challenge.

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.

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