Between Past and Future: A Shabbat Message for Parashat Vayechi

December 29, 2029


As we conclude the book of Genesis this Shabbat, we have a parashah that is full of transition, and full of blessing. We dwell in a liminal space, with the deaths of both our patriarch Jacob, for whom we are named (he is called Israel), and his beloved son Joseph. Both of these men have led long lives full of complexity, pain, learning, and growth. Through their stories, and those of the other patriarchs and matriarchs, we are invited to wrestle with and draw wisdom from them in the fullness of their complicated humanity – in all of their beauty and their brokenness. 

We encounter Jacob on his deathbed, with his twelve sons gathered around him, along with Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. In addition to offering blessings specific to each of his sons, truly seeing them in all that they are and all that he hopes for them, he offers words of blessing specifically to his grandchildren. These particular words were thought so powerful and so important by our sages that for millennia they have been woven into the traditional nighttime liturgy, specifically the Shema al Hamita (the Shema and its accompanying blessings to be said at bedtime). You can learn more about the bedtime Shema here

“But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born. And he blessed Joseph, saying:

“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day—׃
The Messenger* who has redeemed me from all harm—
Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” (Genesis 48:15-16)
(*”Messenger” – literally translated as “Angel.”)

The italicized words are part of the Shema al Hamita (bedtime Shema), and there is a beautiful melody to accompany them. You can listen to the melody, sung by Neshama Carlebach, here. When my kids were little, I would sing this as a lullaby to each of them. We are never too old to need a lullaby, which after all is a kind of a blessing. 

As we dwell now in the liminal space between the year 2023 and the year 2024, we have the opportunity to, in a sense, sing ourselves this lullaby — to reflect on the year that has passed, and our hopes for the future. Moments of transition, whether between night and day, between one year and the next, or the most profound transition at the end of our lives, offer us the blessing of looking back and looking forward, a kind of harvesting and integrating of our experiences (whether of the day, the year, or our life), and of articulating our hopes for the future (whether the day to come, the year to come, or the generations to come after us). At this time of transition into the new year according to the Gregorian calendar, may we take our tradition’s invitation to reflect, to integrate, and embrace at times of transition all that we have been, all that we have experienced, and all that we hope for the future — even the future we will not live to see.

On this last Shabbat of 2023, may you experience the blessing of connecting fully and authentically to the wholeness of yourself and your experience as you reflect on the last year and look ahead to the new one. May this new year bring you the blessing of deeper connection to yourself, to your loved ones, to community and tradition, and to the chain of generations of which you are a sacred, singular part.

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman