Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come. Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen (sh'ma) to Israel your father. . . When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people. -Genesis 49:1-2; 33
Toward the end of this week’s portion, Vayechi, which concludes the book of Genesis, Jacob addresses his sons from his deathbed. It’s a fraught scene: as the patriarch contemplates dying in Egyptian exile, he fears that his descendants will abandon the covenant that began with Abraham and Sarah. They are, after all, now solidly ensconced in foreign land with very different customs and beliefs. Like any parent, Jacob frets over what the future might bring to his family after he has departed this world.
Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah re-imagines that scene as the origin of our people’s central declaration of faith, the Sh’ma. As the Rabbis read the story, Jacob says to his sons: “I worry that when I die, you and your offspring will turn to foreign gods and practices.” In one voice, they respond: Sh’ma Yisrael—in this case, meaning “Listen, Jacob (who is also known as Israel)—Adonai is our God, and Adonai alone. With great relief, Jacob uses his final breath to respond: “Baruch Shem k’vodo l’olam va-ed—Thank God, now and forever!”
As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes, this legend transforms the Sh’ma into a living drama, as the latest generation of Jews promise their forebears that they will carry on the tradition bequeathed to them. Jacob dies in peace—and even now we, the Jewish people, continue to affirm the covenant, wrestling with the Holy One as he did.
What are your fears for the next generation? What might bring you reassurance? What do we owe the generations who preceded us? What do we ask of the generations following us?