Table for Five: Vayechi
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
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 the hands – although Manasseh was the first-born.
– Gen 48:14
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, American Jewish University
Although the classical tradition was definitely patriarchal, with men bearing more responsibilities but also enjoying more privileges than women, the way we bless our daughters – that they be like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, and Leah – has long seemed to me to be much more meaningful than the way we bless our sons, that they be like Efraim and Menashe. The latter custom is based on this verse, but, frankly, we know very little from the Bible about those two men, and the tribes named after them in later times played a much less prominent role than, say, Judah did. In contrast, the Torah includes many stories about our Matriarchs, and while they, like all of us, were not perfect, they had many qualities that we would want our daughters to emulate, and so blessing them in their names makes sense.
How, then, can we justify blindly following this verse in the way we bless our sons? After all, if we are using our Matriarchs to bless our daughters, it would be both more meaningful and more egalitarian to bless our sons in the names of our Patriarchs. I am sure that others might stretch to find a justification for our practice, but here I will say, as Professor Israel Francus, one of my Talmud teachers, frequently said, “the questions are often better than the answers.” So why do we follow this custom? “Tradition!” – and as long as it is not harming anyone, that answer can suffice.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
Whenever my kids would ask who my favorite child was, I would always respond, “I neglect all my children equally.” They quickly stopped asking. As parents, we assiduously avoid favoring one child over another. Perhaps we recall our own childhood rivalries and the pain of seeing a parent bestow greater affection or attention on a sibling.
Jacob’s life was punctuated with this phenomenon. His rivalry with his brother Esau led to stolen blessings and deep-seated bitterness. The favoritism Jacob showed Joseph nearly resulted in fratricide. Yet, despite this, Jacob seems to show gross favoritism to one grandson over the other. Has he learned nothing from those painful experiences?
Perhaps he has. Every child is different. Each varies in temperament and talent. Parents cannot but help seeing qualities within their children that they both love and rue. Truth be told, one child may inspire more pride, while another requires greater guidance. As parents, we endeavor to love our children equally despite these differences.
As for Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob saw Ephraim embodied potential for greatness that Manasseh lacked. But he had learned some hard lessons. Jacob eschewed the subterfuge of the past, the gross favoritism. Instead, he gives the brothers a shared, identical blessing. He subtly acknowledges the greater potential of Ephraim, but in a matter that went literally over their heads. If Joseph had remained silent, the two brothers may never have noticed. Our children are not the same. The challenge is to nurture each individually without hurting the others.
Yael W. Mashbaum, Interim Middle School Director/Sinai Akiba Academy
This scene in Torah has always held a special place in my heart. I can feel the naches that Jacob sheps at being able to meet and bless his grandsons. What a unique opportunity this parsha provides, by allowing a grandfather relationship to emerge, one that has not existed in the rest of Genesis, even with Jacob’s own grandfather, Abraham.
The choreography in this verse may be hard to imagine, but the message is clear: no more trickery and stolen blessings. In his old age, Jacob demonstrates that he has learned the danger of bequeathing the Covenant with God only to one son, and pitting brothers against each other in the process. Though he places his right hand, symbolizing preference and strength, on the younger son, Joseph and Jacob make a point to mix up the right and the left sides so much that it is almost comical.
Jacob finally realizes how silly this all is. Earlier in his life, he favored a younger son and lost out on the privilege of getting to know him in adulthood. He, himself, received the Covenantal blessing as the younger son, and it created a chasm between him and his nuclear family.
Finally, he sets up Ephraim and Menashe differently. He does not create a competitive situation, but blesses them equally, demonstrating his wisdom and ability to change. And we, as Yisrael, bless our sons accordingly for all time.
Rabbi Natan Halevy, WWW.KAHALJOSEPH.ORG
By giving precedence to the younger son over the first born he was repeating the pattern that had occurred with Ishmael and Isaac and himself and Eisav.
Was Jacob mistaken?
The reason he didn’t place his right hand on Menashe, was that he had seen through his holy spirit that Efraim would historically be of greater importance than the first born. Joshua, who led the nation into Israel, descended from Efraim.
Efraim humbled himself, taking time away from his own affairs to honor Jacob, and Jacob acknowledged this. One might think that instead of crossing his hands, Yaakov should have asked that the sons of Joseph switch their position in front of their grandfather, but that is precisely what Yaakov did not want them to do. He did not want to embarrass Menashe by relegating him to his left side, seeing that after all he was Joseph’s firstborn, and he deserved to be treated with respect on account of this.
Efraim only came before Menashe in matters of spirituality, that which is higher than the natural happenings of the world. In worldly matters, however, Menashe preceded Efraim. In the first counting at Mt. Sinai, where the Divine presence was upon their heads and the conduct was beyond nature, Efraim came first. In the counting in the Plains of Moav, before entering the Land, which occurred in a natural way, Menashe came first.
Sometimes we must make difficult decisions when they are the right ones in the grand scheme of life.
Abe Mezrich, Poet, author: Words for a Dazzling Firmament
It’s been said that the word for Jacob’s hand movement – שִׂכֵּל֙—echoes what Jacob’s mother told him decades earlier. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Rebecca warns that he must flee elsewhere, lest Esau come to kill him and as a result אֶשְׁכַּ֛ל, “I will be left bereft (Genesis 27:45).” Now, moving his own hands— שִׂכֵּל֙ —Jacob in a way leaves himself bereft.
Throughout Genesis, we’ve learned that whatever you believe being the firstborn should get you, the Divine plan may lie elsewhere. Someone else may in fact be more blessed, more deserving of blessing. And in that one word, שִׂכֵּל, perhaps the Torah acknowledges something crucial about this axiom. No matter how true it may be, it comes with a price to pay. It forces a break in the continuity that should come from parent to child. It takes a child’s very identity out from under them. It brings terrible pain.
It’s something to keep in mind not only at the close of Genesis, but as we near the story of the Exodus as well. That story culminates not in a notional fall of one firstborn, but in the actual killing of every firstborn of a society. We are told of the wailing of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:30), and we can take a moment to hear that particular cry. Because even if justice was carried out and what was done is what needed to be done, something tragic has transpired. Someone is always left bereft when history switches hands.
With thanks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Yael W. Mashbaum, Rabbi Natan Halevy, and Abe Mezrich
Image: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Rembrandt, 1656
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