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Birthright and Brotherhood

This week's parashah, Vayhi, brings to a close the book of Bereshit/Genesis. In this chapter all that has been wrong is made right. Or has it?

Yes, Joseph and his brothers all reunite. Yes, Joseph and his beloved father Jacob are also reunited. But the reunion is all too short, for soon thereafter Jacob is on his deathbed. He has seen his beloved Joseph and now he can die in peace - or as much in peace as is possible for a man who has lived as he has. For Jacob has spent his whole life either running from a brother whom he had wronged, working in order to finally marry the woman he loved or mourning the loss of his favorite son. The days of peace and tranquility in Jacob's life have been few and fleeting. And yet, the name of this parashah - Vayhi - means "and he lived." True, the name is simply taken from the first word of the parashah, but perhaps it is meant to teach us something.

Perhaps contained in this simple word is a core truth of Jacob's life - and all of our lives. For in spite of all that had happened to Jacob he did live. His life may have been filled with much sorrow, deceit, trickery, sadness, anger, frustration and dejection. Yet, in the end he lived and was able to see his beloved son again and bless all of his sons before his death.

It is this blessing of his sons, and the blessing of Joseph's sons Manasseh and Ephraim that seems to me to be the true climactic moment of Bereshit. For Jacob continues the tradition of his life by crossing his hands as he blesses his grandchildren and "adopts" them as his. By crossing his hands he give the preferential blessing to Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons. When Joseph tries to stop him Jacob makes it abundantly clear that he is aware of what he is doing. By blessing the younger it is as if he is telling Joseph and the reader that his tricking of his father to receive his elder brother's blessing and birthright was all part of the plan. The younger was and is meant to usurp the position of the elder. The weak shall inherit the place of the strong. What seems to be the natural order of the world is meant to be turned on its head. It may seem that things are meant to be one way, but as the great Jewish sage Ira Gershwin once wrote "it ain't necessarily so."

And so Jacob lived so that he might bless his descendants and see the rights wronged. And he lived to see that the deception he perpetrated all those years ago was not for naught. For now the youngest child of the second youngest son has become the chosen one. He is to become his own tribe and eventually the namesake of one of the two kingdoms of the Jewish people once they establish themselves in the Promised Land (the northern kingdom of Israel will also be known as Ephraim and the southern kingdom as Judah).

It would seem that Jacob's deathbed blessing and the reversal of his grandsons' blessing is a type of poetic justice. But perhaps what is most important to note is that Manasseh does not protest losing his blessing, nor do Joseph's brother try to stop their father. It is as if everyone is colluding with Jacob to give the blessing to the younger as a way to heal all the wrongs that have been done in the past. By blessing Ephraim, and by all of the brothers and Ephraim's own brother acknowledging the blessing, it is as if all has been made right. To this day on Shabbat eve Jewish parents bless their sons by asking that they be able to rejoice like Manasseh and Ephraim.

My interpretation of this blessing (which varies slightly from the traditional understandings) is that we are asking that our sons be willing to accept whatever it is that they are given in life. That they be willing to put aside petty envy and jealousy and simply rejoice in their lot and in the lot of their loved ones, even if deep down one sibling might feel slighted or cheated. For ultimately, Ephraim and Manasseh realized that it is their fraternal bond that matters and not who get grandpa's blessing. This is how tikun/repair is made for all that Jacob had done to his brother and Jacob's elder sons to their younger brother Joseph.

But there is one final point that I would like to make. When blessing our daughters we ask that they be made to rejoice like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. In this blessing the message is that the matriarchs were all able to rejoice together. Even with their struggles to conceive, even with the fighting between sisters to receive Jacob's love, the women of the Torah were able to find a way to love and rejoice in each other. They were able to connect through their struggles and distress and still find the ability to rejoice. The men of the Torah were unable to do this. They were too concerned with birthrights and blessings, with land and progeny. They were not able to connect. It was not until the fifth generation that they were able to rejoice in each other and live in harmony. That is the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim.

May all of us - male and female alike - share in that blessing and rejoice in one another and in our lives. Ken yehi ratzon - may it be God's will.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah