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Parashat Vayechi: Yaakov’s Legerdemain by Yaakov Bieler

December 15, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts

                The next-to-last act of Yaakov’s life is to bless Yosef by way of his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe (Beraishit 48:9-20). As Yaakov places his hands on the heads of Yosef’s two sons to bless them, the Tora states, (48:15) “And he (Yaakov) blessed Yosef…”  Yaakov has already indicated in one way or another that he views Yosef, rather than Reuven, as his preferred son[1]  [2]; but when Yaakov gives Yosef’s sons blessings comparable to those that he gives Yosef’s siblings in Chapter 49, and he specifically states, (48:5) “…and your two sons…are mine, Ephraim and Menashe are to me like Reuven and Shimon…”, Yosef’s status as Yaakov’s first-born, is solidified. As a result of Yaakov’s blessing, each one of Yosef’s sons, and the tribes that descend from them, is entitled to his own share of the land in Canaan, rather than having to split a single share that they would otherwise have received via their father.  The conferring of tribal status to both Ephraim and Menashe in Chapter 48 is more legally significant than Yaakov’s continued reference to Reuven in 49:3 : “Bechori Ata, Kochi VeRaishit Oni…” (You are my first born, my strength and the first of my acquisitions…). Reuven may be Yaakov’s first-born biologically and chronologically, but it appears that in Yaakov’s mind, this is true in terms of empirical fact alone.   

Yaakov blesses Ephriam and Menashe privately rather than publicly.

                The blessing of Yosef via his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, takes place in private, Yaakov’s other sons being markedly absent. While Yosef’s preeminence in Egypt as well as his brothers’ regret over having put both Yaakov and Yosef through so much by pretending that the latter had been murdered and not disclosing what had actually happened to him for over two decades, would probably mitigate against any further hostilities between the siblings, publicly conferring upon Ephraim and Menashe their special blessings would have certainly rubbed additional salt into the wounds of their uncles.  Yaakov’s decision to bless them in such an intimate setting suggests that he has finally become more sensitized to the effects of any preferential actions directed to specific members of the family on the rest of his children who do not receive comparable treatment.

But is Yaakov truly even-handed when blessing Ephraim and Menashe?

                 However, even if we posit that Yaakov attempts to spare his other sons further aggravation and public humiliation over being passed over in favor of Yosef and his children, by giving these blessings in private, how the grandfather treats Ephraim and Menashe themselves, particularly the latter would appear to be less than ideal. In Yaakov’s favor, we recognize that Yaakov blesses both his grandsons simultaneously and applies the same formula to both of them (48:15, 16, 20). The sense of even-handedness in this act is in stark contrast to the competition for receiving a singular paternal blessing that takes place between Yaakov and Eisav, described in Chapter 27, or the overt favoritism displayed by Yaakov towards Yosef in Chapter 37. Yet, blessing both Ephraim and Menashe simultaneously also creates a dilemma for all involved. This instance is the only description in the Tora of a parent bestowing ostensibly the same blessing at the same time to two different children.   As opposed to a situation where a parent is blessing a single child and no conclusions can be drawn regarding relative body position and language since there is only a single recipient of the blessing, when there are two or more children, and technically the blessing can no longer be bestowed truly identically, i.e., both bless-ees cannot stand in exactly the same place, the same parental hands cannot be on both heads at the same time, and both names cannot be uttered simultaneously but rather one must precede the other, differences per force will exist. The question that then inevitably arises is whether such differences in position and language are simply the manifestation of logistical realities, but not indicative of specific special treatment of one person over another, or are the details to be viewed as pregnant with meaning and significance, advancing one individual ahead of the other? 

                From the biblical account, it seems that preferential treatment is meted out to Ephraim in terms of body language and verbal content. The Tora notes:

a)  despite Yosef’s positioning of the children vis-à-vis Yaakov, i.e., the older Menashe[3] faces Yaakov’s right side and Ephraim faces his left (48:13), with the assumption being that in this manner, Yaakov would place his right hand on the former, the left on the latter, Yaakov deliberately reverses his hands, placing the more desirable right hand on Ephraim and the left on Menashe (48:14);

b)  in order to assuage Yosef’s consternation over his father’s switching hands, Yaakov  predicts that the younger son will prove superior to the older (48:19);

and   c)   Ephraim’s name is invoked before Menashe’s during the course of Yaakov’s blessing  (48:20). 

Is Yaakov the grandfather repeating the indiscretions of Yaakov the father with regard to favoritism?

                When we note these actions and declarations, it seems like “déjà vu all over again.”[4]  Must yet another scenario be created where an older sibling resents a younger one for being preferred and chosen[5] by a father and grandfather? Even if Yaakov’s prophetic vision regarding future accomplishments of his grandchildren and their offspring is borne out over the years, why is it necessary for him to already draw attention to such an eventual outcome at this point? Has Yaakov not learned to avoid these kinds of actions and remarks from what has transpired among the members of his family as a result of the favoritism that he unambiguously displayed while his own children were growing up?

An indication that in fact, Yaakov had changed his approach.

                It is for this very reason that the approach of Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, in his commentary Ketav Sofer, is so surprising and even reassuring. The commentator begins by asking the same question that is posed by many: if Yaakov was so insistent about giving Ephraim priority, why didn’t he simply ask the boys to exchange positions, rather than allowing them to stand where Yosef had placed him, and only then switch his hands? R. Sofer suggests that by having the boys reverse places, Yaakov would be calling attention to Menashe’s status being diminished. Consequently, Yaakov allows the boys to stay where they already are, and unobtrusively switches his hands in a manner that the boys would not notice. They would not be aware, reasoned Yaakov, of what is taking place above them and therefore would assume that all is in order, with Menashe, the true first-born being entitled to be blessed with Yaakov’s right hand. After all, if Yosef, under the presumption that his father’s mind was somewhat addled and that he had made a mistake with regard to the placements of his hands,[6] had not called attention to the reversal of the hands, would Ephraim and Menashe have ever realized what had transpired? Naturally, once “the cat was out of the bag”, Yaakov has to explain himself, and share his prophetic vision with Yosef and his grandsons. Ketav Sofer therefore contends that Yaakov did learn something after all those years and was actually trying to protect Menashe’s feelings by means of his hand-switching. Yosef, on the other hand, perhaps was concerned that Menashe would notice that he was being passed up for his younger brother, and recalling all too well his considerable suffering as a result of his brothers’ jealousy and anger, wished to spare Ephraim from a fate of being despised by Menashe.

The question raised by this oft-repeated practice.

                Being provided with the foreknowledge that you are expected to become notable in the world at large, as happens in the cases of Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and Ephraim, might create the sort of motivation and readiness for risk-taking on the part of the individual to whom is imparted such predictions and expectations that the pursuit of such aspirations will require. However, presenting the information regarding of whom greatness is expected, to those not designated for such accomplishments, would appear to have to be considered in light of the considerable social cost that will have to be paid with respect to family, friends, community and society. Why does there appear to be a conscious effort to contrast one set of expectations with another? Why couldn’t the special predictions be conveyed in absolute privacy, beyond the eyes and ears of the recipient’s competitors? On the one hand it could be suggested from a  structure perspective, that a clear hierarchy has to be established, and the relative positions of the members of a particular generation have to be made clear and known to all—who is the leader and who are the followers—even if such information might generate resentment and jealousy. But, alternatively, from a Mussar (ethical and moral) point of view, it could also be asserted that sharing such information is meant to constitute a trial for the individual who has to confront and embrace his second-class status, and it would appear that the test of the also-ran to accept his predicted limitations compared to his sibling, is as great if not greater a challenge than that confronting the individual predicted for greatness to live up to such a prophecy.


[1]Yaakov would even be able to argue that had Lavan not misled him and originally given him Leah instead of Rachel (29:23-25), then Rachel would have been his only wife, and Yosef would have been his true firstborn. Although the Tora explicitly states that a father who is married to more than one wife cannot deny the status of “first born” to his first child, regardless of how the father feels about the child’s mother (Devarim 21:15-17), the forefathers of the Jewish people, prior to the giving of the Tora at Sinai, were not necessarily bound by the Tora’s strictures. While there is a view within Jewish tradition that even before God  Gives the Tora to the Jewish people, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs observed the Tora’s mandates—see e.g., RaShI on Beraishit 26:5—commentators explain that this was done optionally, as opposed to out of a sense of obligation and fulfillment of commandments. Therefore, if the individual saw fit, s/he could choose not to observe the commandment just as well, a choice that was withdrawn once the Jews said “Na’aseh VeNishma” (We will do and we will hear/understand) (Shemot 19:8; 24:7) at Sinai.

[2] Yaakov’s preferential feelings and actions towards Yosef are noted by his siblings as described in 37:2-4; this perception serves to exacerbate the brothers’ reactions to the dreams that Yosef describes to them, in which the dreamer obviously plays the central role (Ibid. 5-11).

[3]Beraishit 41:51 clearly states that Menashe is the first-born.

[4] (A quote attributed to the NY Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra.) Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back to back home runs in the Yankees’ seasons in the early 1960s. (Berra, Yogi (1998). The Yogi Book. New York: Workman Publishing. p. 30.)                   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yogi_Berra#cite_note-21

[5] In case one would be tempted to suggest that Ephraim and Menashe were too young to understand what was being said about and done to them, it can be assumed that the boys at this point are in their 20’s. 41:50 states that they were born prior to the onset of the years of famine. From 47:28 we learn that Yaakov had been in Egypt for 17 years when he died.

[6] Assuming that Yosef did not think that his father knew what he was doing with respect to blessing Ephraim and Menashe, equates him with Rivka, who also thought that Yitzchak was intending to confer the special blessing given by God to Avraham, to Eisav, when in fact Yitzchak all along intended to give that blessing to Yaakov—see 28:3-4. A great deal of enmity and personal grief could have been avoided if such errors would not have been made.

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