Fathers and Sons
In preparing his sons for his final words of wisdom and blessings, Yaakov summoned his sons. It’s quite curious that Yaakov presented a long monologue in inviting his sons for the blessings, a whole two verses (49:1-2): Yaakov called his sons and said, “Gather [Heb: הֵאָסְפוּ] and I will tell you what will befall you at the end of days. Assemble [Heb: הִקָּבְצוּ] and listen, sons of Yaakov, and listen to Yisrael, your father.”
Why so much verbiage to simply gather his sons together? What is the difference between “gather” (הֵאָסְפוּ) and “assemble” (הִקָּבְצוּ)? Finally, why did the father call himself both “Yaakov” and “Yisrael” in this invitation?
Notice that the verb of the first verse is Yaakov saying that he will “tell” his children what will be in the future. But the verb of the second verse is Yaakov saying to his sons that they should “listen” to him. When reading this as a father, I can relate. Sometimes, we may call our children over to tell them something, but noting that they may not be that interested in what we have to say, we caution them to listen carefully before saying what we’d like to say.
There is obviously no way for us to know the nature and depth of the relationships that Yaakov shared with his sons, especially once Yoseph was discovered to be alive and the family made its way to Egypt. It would appear, however, that there were many unanswered questions, and the relationships were strained as a result. Imagine a father in that situation calling over his children, wishing to preach something profound about themselves and their future.
The insights of parents
It would be quite understandable if one or more of Yaakov’s children harbored the attitude: “My father’s never understood me all these years. He never heard my side of the story, never reconciled my behavior, and there’s so much unspoken between us. He now presumes to know me enough to tell me about my future?” How often do we as children feel that our parents don’t get us? How often do we as parents get the sense that our children feel that way about us?
The part that the children don’t understand is that the parents were once children themselves. They often have insights into their children because they see how much their children resemble them when they were children. They recognize the inner conflicts, the unresolved problems, the emotional turmoil of their children, because they went through it when they were younger. Of course, the children don’t see that; all they see is a wiser, calmer, and older adult, and so they conclude that their parent couldn’t possibly understand the challenges they face. And that’s where they’d be mistaken.
Yaakov called his sons initially to tell them to physically gather together (הֵאָסְפוּ), because he had something he needed to share with all of them. But then, in the second verse, knowing his children might harbor negative thoughts about his message, he said, “Assemble (הִקָּבְצוּ) yourselves and listen.” This was not a call to physically come together, but rather a plea to emotionally and mentally pay attention. Put aside your negative thoughts about what you think I know or don’t know about you. Let’s reconcile just for a moment because maybe something that I have to say may be insightful to your situation and who you are.
Understanding our children
According to R. Bechaye, the reason why the father used both his names Yaakov and Yisrael was because he was reminding them that he sired most of his children when his name was simply “Yaakov.” He only became the more noble, wise, and exalted “Yisrael” after his children were born.
With this, we may understand what he was communicating to his sons: I do understand your inner demons. I was not always the man who lies before you today, wise and composed as I am on my deathbed. There was a time when I was filled with youthful vigor and impetuousness just as you may be today. I was Yaakov, grasping at the heel of life, trying to keep my head above water.
You are my sons; as such, you carry within you so many of the characteristics that I possessed when I was your age. This is why you should listen to me, because you are “sons of Yaakov” – you’re just like I was so many years ago.
Furthermore, take my words seriously because I am now Yisrael. You may think I don’t understand you, but realize that I have struggled my entire life (which is what the name “Yisrael” means). I have struggled with my own demons and with others’ demons.
Through that process, I have learned how to maneuver the difficult straits of life. I cannot say that I’m 100% proud of everything I’ve done, but I can say that I’ve developed wisdom over these years and can now impart to you some of the things I’ve learned over the years through my struggles. Use that wisdom because it will help you for the future.
Father and Son
One of my favorite songs is “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (1970). Its lyrics are simple but hard-hitting. The song describes an exchange between a father and a son, where the father tries to give his son fatherly advice, and the son, frustrated, concludes that his father just doesn’t understand:
The father says: It’s not time to make a change; just relax, take it easy. You’re still young, that’s your fault, there’s so much you have to know. Find a girl, settle down, if you want you can marry. Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy. I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy to be calm when you’ve found something going on. But take your time, think a lot, think of everything you’ve got. For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
The son angrily says to himself: How can I try to explain? When I do he turns away again. It’s always been the same, same old story. From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen. Now there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away. I know I have to go.
Reassuring our children
Fathers and sons have been struggling and misunderstanding each other from time immemorial. Yaakov tried his best to reassure his children that he did understand them. He granted each son what he felt each one needed to hear. For some, his words were harsh rebuke, and for others, they were soothing blessings. But Yaakov always spoke out of the love that a father has for his son.
May we all learn from the words of our fathers and mothers. One of the most touching scenes from the war in Gaza is the time right around 7 pm, where each chayal is calling their children to wish them a good night, and showering them with the unique and heartwarming love of a parent who cannot be there. It is that love that Yaakov sought to shower upon his children.
May all parents have the wisdom to offer words that will be heard. Moms and dads, take some extra time to “bless” your children. If you don’t have children, bless those whom you can positively influence. Give them your own words of praise and hope on Friday night before blessing them, and find other times to engage with them. This way, both fathers and sons will see the ultimate Redemption, bb”a.