With a coincidental lining up of the calendars, the Jewish community is reading the end of the Book of Genesis this week as the secular world prepares for the end of 2023. One of the benefits of being a Jew in our place and time is our ability and opportunity to take from the best of the two parts of our identities – Jewish and American – and utilize them as we need. For example, we get the benefit of two opportunities each year to look back on a year concluding and forward to a year beginning. We did this a few months ago at Rosh Hashanah as we welcomed 5784. We did cheshbon nefesh, looking back over the year that was, for ways we could improve, and did teshuva to repair the harms that we had caused. As many of us prepare to transition in 2024, we might make resolutions, a similar expression of what we hope to accomplish in the new year.
Looking at this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we reach the conclusion of the story of our matriarchs and patriarchs. Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca are long gone, and now we reach the end of Jacob’s life, along with his wives and many sons. While the portion takes us all the way through Joseph’s death, it’s Jacob’s interactions with his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe that drew my attention.
From the birth of Abraham’s sons Ishmael and then Isaac, the relationships between the fathers and sons, and among the brothers in each generation had been conspicuously fraught. Isaac and Ishmael battled for their father’s favor, and their mother’s for Abraham’s affection. Sarah forced Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother Hagar off. Isaac and Rebecca raised twin boys, Jacob and Esau, that even in Rebecca’s womb battled one another, the prelude to a lifetime of competition for birthrights and blessings. It got so bad that Rebecca convinced Jacob to run away, the only conceivable way to prevent Esau from taking his life in retribution. Having learned nothing from his experience as an unfavored brother, Jacob then became a father who favored one of his sons over the other eleven, bequeathing fraternal strife onto the next generation, as had become the family tradition.
This year, as we have been reading the stories of these generations in our annual journey through the book of Genesis, I have been mourning my friend, classmate, and colleague Rabbi Aimee Gerace z”l. Aimee and I met in January 2007, when we both were in Cincinnati to be interviewed by the Hebrew Union College for entrance into rabbinical school. While there, we attended a few classes and shared a few meals together with students and faculty members, but then went on our separate ways to await word on our admission. We were both accepted, and began our studies together in Jerusalem that summer. We went to Los Angeles together to continue our studies, and both opted to earn master’s degrees in Jewish education, adding a year to our time at HUC. We were ordained together in May 2013. Of all of the friends and colleagues that I made during my time at HUC, I spent more time in class with Aimee than with anyone else.
To earn our education masters’, we had to write a curriculum as a capstone project. Aimee is the daughter of a marriage and family therapist and chose to focus on the familial relationships in the Book of Genesis- those broken, painful relationships I noted above. As she liked to quip, our biblical ancestors are great examples of how not to treat our closest loved ones. Those are words of Torah that I often find myself sharing in my own teaching, and each time I do, I think of Aimee the rabbi and teacher, but also Aimee the person with a tremendously energetic personality, who was kind and honest, who loved life fully. Several years ago, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, which she fought valiantly. She continued to work, serving her congregation in California, and raise her two beautiful children. Some of you may have seen her in action in this video that went viral of her reading the haftarah on Rosh Hashanah in 2021. Leading from home on Zoom because she was immunocompromised from her cancer treatment, she navigated the tantrum her daughter threw with a grace and kindness that any parent- and any rabbi- would aspire to.
Aimee succumbed to her illness this past October 13th, on her 10th wedding anniversary. It’s been difficult to find the space to grieve for her, since so many of us are also consumed with grief for the hostages, victims, and soldiers in Israel. But Aimee’s love and warmth commands us to look at her story, and the Torah she taught; with an eye for how our lives can be made better because of it. Which brings us back to our ancestors, and Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe.
As Jacob was nearing his death, he asked Joseph to bring his grandsons forward that he could bless them. Jacob put his right hand on the head of the younger brother Ephraim and his left on the head of the older Menashe. Joseph tried to intervene, seeing the same pattern that had afflicted his family in previous generations, the younger son being treated with privilege, emerge. But Jacob insisted that this be the way. And while Ephraim, like his fathers’ before him, were younger brothers who were blessed to be greater than the older, neither he nor Menashe perpetuated the fraternal strife that had come before them. They, instead, chose to get along. And so, it is our custom to bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, with pride of family and compassion for one another.
As we close the book on 2023 and move from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, let us be inspired by Ephraim and Menashe to learn from those who have come before us. We may remember people or moments from the past and aspire to repeat or recreate them in our future. Or, like Rabbi Aimee Gerace z’l would remind us, we may have learned what not to do in the future from what we did, or was done to us, in our past. Either way, as we move forward, may it be for goodness, and may her memory be for her family, and for all of us, a blessing.
Rabbi Greg Weisman