13 Jan 2017

Haftara for Vayhi 5777: Parental Discretion

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Haftara for Vayhi 5777: Parental Discretion

‘I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me.
Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life…
There is no easy story in legacy’.

—Edmund de Waal, ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’

I Kings 2:1-12


King David is dying and he delivers his last will and testament to his youngest son and successor, Shelomo. There are three parts to his final message. He opens telling him to be strong and become a man. This is followed by a warning to the young prince to know God and walk in His ways, for it is the quality of his relationship with God that will make or break him. Finally, Shelomo is told of the rebellions to the monarchy that were launched by Yoab ben Seruya and Shim’i ben Gera as well as the support that was given to the king by Barzilai of Gil’ad. King Shelomo is to respond as he sees fit to the threats and affections delivered to the Crown. They are not to be left unattended.

Approximately one year ago after a conversation I had with a friend in the community who had done the same, I decided to have my DNA tested to ascertain its ancestral composition. I wanted to know more about my genetic inheritance. I wanted to know what I was made of.

I found that 80% of my 23 pairs of chromosomes come from the Middle East and North Africa with close to 20% coming from the Iberian, Italian and Balkan Peninsulas of Southern Europe. While it didn’t turn out to be as varied and exotic as I might have imagined, it did connect me to geographical regions that are culturally and traditionally familiar and meaningful to my ancestors and me.

On the biological level we are comprised of great and complex genetic legacies, left to us generation after generation by our forebears through the very act of conception.

Recently scientists have discovered considerable evidence that there is more than just DNA that we inherit. We also inherit what is called the epigenome[1] which is made up of chemical compounds and proteins that can attach to, or ‘mark’, DNA and direct such actions as turning a gene on or off thus modifying its function. These marks do not change the sequence of the DNA, rather, they change the way cells use the DNA’s instructions.

One of the most significant aspects of these markers is that they can be affected and changed through environmental conditions and human experiences, which in turn affects the DNA’s function. These marks can be inherited from one’s ancestors, meaning an ancestor’s experiences can not only affect the nature of his or her own life but also the lives of their descendants[2].

Another bequeathal that parents pass to their children are the behaviours, actions and styles which a child witnesses and absorbs through growing up in their environment. Richard Dawkins recognised that these transmitted aspects of behaviour greatly resemble genetic transmission in that they are passed down generationally and survive based on their viability and adaptability. For example, one who has survived conflict may pass on resulting behaviours and styles to their children that better equip the offspring to withstand and survive similar situations. These units of behaviour are called ‘memes’. One’s home and parents are profoundly influential in this regard. However, what the genetic, epigenetic and mememtic inheritances that we receive have in common, is that they are bestowed to us in an overwhelmingly passive way. They run from parent to child automatically and thus are essentially givens in our lives.

Still, the most meaningful and important inheritances that we give and receive are the conscious, spoken, intentionally delivered aspects of transmission. In Hebrew we call these cherished bequeathals mesorah (literally, ‘what is transmitted or given over’).

The vast aspects of personality and biology that we receive through circumstances are indeed prominent in the composition of our identity. Yet, they are but its foundations.

The most precious and powerful aspect of the human being is the conscious mind. We are aware of ourselves, our actions, our past and future and we have the ability, with discipline and determination, to genuinely lead our lives rather than be driven through them by our circumstantial inheritance. We can decide how (or how not) to use what we’ve received, and how we might wish to exercise our freedom of choice in order to develop, beautify, sanctify and enrich ourselves beyond the basic components of what we have been given by those who came before us. It is not easy, but it is well worth the effort.

Our parasha and haftara are both about a patriarch’s approaching death and his leaving of a conscious responsibility to his children for the future. Both Yaakob and King David are dying. But before they leave their children they do not suffice with only leaving them the passive elements — the results of DNA, epigenetics, and memes. They both actively give over to their children something infinitely more meaningful; they give them their thoughts, concerns, and directions aimed specifically to and for the child.

Implicit in such engaged bequeathal is care, but with it is also a definitive highlighting of what they deemed to be important and essential for their children to know and do. It is purposeful, intimate and focused. It is as if the fathers are saying to their children: ‘Being my child comes with aspects of legacy that is circumstantial and unavoidable. But what I say to you now is deliberate. It is what I want you to know. It is what I want to give you before I die so that you may live and prosper’.

We learn from Yaakob and King David that parents must do more than conceive and raise their children. They must also give over what is important to them. This must be specific and focused towards the unique nature of each child.

All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them; he blessed them, according to what belonged to each as a blessing. (Gen., 49:28)

King David is not just speaking to his son, but to the next king of Israel. Shelomo will find his own way in dealing with the issues but he must know of them and be wary.

For you are a wise man and you will know what to do….(2:9)

Vayhi, the coda of Bereshit is about mesora – an active handover more than it is about inheritance, and this is reflected in the haftara’s entire theme. Before the end of Genesis, an elaborate narrative of generational developments, we learn that genetics and memetics are not enough, and that parents must actively provide mesora to their children. They must think about and give over what they find meaningful, show them what they want them to know, and how to behave. Of course, specific actions are left to the children themselves to figure out but the conscious, caring handover of meaning is the crowning act of creation.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] This field of study which explores epigenetics is called ‘epigenomics’.

[2] Dr Rachel Yehuda, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found that children of Holocaust survivors had the same neuroendocrine or hormonal abnormalities that were in Holocaust survivors themselves as well as people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Parasha Perspectives

XII  Vayechi

37d              Ya’akov and family in Egypt (46:28-47:31)
Continues from Vayigash (46:28-47:27)
Yosef makes promise to his father (47:28-31)
38                Ya’akov blesses Ephraim and Menashe (48:1-22)
39                Blessing for Reuven (49:1-4)
40                Curse for Shimon and Levi (49:5-7)
41                Blessing for Yehuda (49:8-12)
42                Blessing for Zevulun (49:13)
43a              Blessing for Yissachar (49:14-15)
43b              Blessing for Dan (48:16-18)
43c               Blessing for Gad (49:19)
43d              Blessing for Asher (49:20)
43e              Blessing for Naphtali (49:21)
43f               Blessing for Yosef (49:22-26)
44                Death of Ya’akov and Yosef (49:27-50:26)
Blessing for Binyamin (49:27);
After blessing his sons, Ya’akov dies (49:28-33);
Ya’akov’s burial (50:1-13);
Brothers reconciled, Yosef dies (50:14-26)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS