Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yehi 5762/ December 29, 2001

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Va-Yehi 5762/ December 29, 2001

"Not so, Father" (Gen. 48:18)

Yonah Bar-Maoz
Department of Bible

When Joseph met with his father Jacob prior to the latter's death, a disagreement arose between them, as we read in Genesis 48:17-19:

When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim's head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father's hand to move it from Ephraim's head to Manasseh's. "Not so, Father," Joseph said to his father, "for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head." But his father objected, saying, "I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations."

This disagreement reflects an ancient problem that has never been resolved over the years: every generation suffers from the mistakes of the preceding generation, and therefore attempts to correct things. However, for the most part the attempts at correction go awry because the correction creates a new set of problems.

Such attempts at correction began with Isaac. He witnessed how his father had been forced to banish Ishmael because he did not suit the atmosphere in the home. Sarah became aware of Ishmael's unsuitability after Isaac's birth: "Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing" (Gen. 21:9). Sarah perceived that Ishmael was Hagar's son in temperament, and this temperament was Egyptian.[1] He was Abraham's son by birth only. Abraham failed to perceive this lack of suitability, as we read: "The matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his" (Gen. 21:10). He saw no reason for not considering Ishmael his son in every respect, both in body and in spirit; however G-d decided the matter in favor of Sarah.

Isaac apparently became sensitive to splits in the family, having been separated from Ishmael at an early age,[2] and so he tried to prevent any further banishment in his family. Isaac was undoubtedly aware of the shortcomings of his son Esau. How could he have ignored his having married Hittite women, who "were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah" (Gen. 26:35)? How could he have ignored the fact that Esau was indifferent to Abraham's warnings about not choosing a wife from among the daughters of the Canaanites? (See Gen. 24). Indeed, when it came time to give his blessing, Isaac blessed Esau with material wealth and power, but for Jacob he reserved Abraham's blessing: "May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of people. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which G-d assigned to Abraham" (Gen. 28:3-4).

Instead of rebuking the son who was clearly straying from the values of the patriarchs and kicking him out of his house, Isaac tried to draw him nearer. He showered special attention on him, expressed satisfaction at Esau's attempts to show respect for his father,[3] and encoouraged this positive trait in order to include Esau in the scope of the Lord's blessing: "Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Gen. 27:3-4). If Esau were to be blessed by his father in the words "May G-d give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine" (Gen. 27:28), then perhaps the man of the fields, eager to fill his belly, would learn that the blessing of material abundance that he enjoyed was not the result of his own actions, rather a blessing from the heavens above; thus he would remain closer to the spiritual values of his father's home.

This attempt at covering up his son's shortcomings led to dire consequences - bitter enmity which almost resulted in murder. Esau did not see that he was unfit for the blessing of G-d,and thought that the only obstacle in the way of attaining his dearly desired goal was Jacob. Even when he perceived that his Canaanite wives were displeasing to his father, instead of correcting his error he tried to cover it up by taking another wife, this time from the house of Ishmael (Gen. 28:6-9). Again the parents' tried to cope with the problem of the hatred between their sons by sending one of them off, except that this time it was the son who was worthy of Abraham's spiritual inheritance who left. Again the Lord confirmed the mother's choice and made great promises to Jacob as he went off to exile, after having deceived his father at his mother's behest (Gen. 28:12-15).

Now it was Jacob's turn to raise a family. He found himself the father of a family with quite a complicated structure: twelve sons, born to four mothers of varying status. Jacob thought he must settle unequivocally who was worthy of heading the family, in which the risk of a power struggle and fight for control was so great. He knew from his own experience that the first-born is not always the one fit to head the family (even Reuben, his first-born, had become disqualified after his affair with Bilhah). On the other hand, it was out of place to encourage an unfit son by giving him false illusions of expecting to enjoy elevated status in the future. Having deeply considered the character of his sons - as we see clearly in this week's reading that he did, from the blessings that he gave them at the end of his life (Gen. 49) - Jacob chose Joseph. Joseph undoubtedly had organizational talent, wisdom and leadership drive - traits that would be clearly proven in the future. Nevertheless, this time too, it turned out that the father's favoritism aroused jealously and hatred, further fueled by Joseph tattling. Again there was an attempt at fratricide and a prolonged separation of one son from the home, although in this case the father was only indirectly responsible for the separation. In addition, the entire household would be shaken by hard times and ultimately have to migrate elsewhere.

So we find Joseph in Egypt, far from his father's house, witnessing how his father was repeating the same mistake, again favoring one son over another. Having himself suffered the consequences of such favoritism, he feared that it opened the door to trouble: which of his two sons would have to traverse that same painful road? Would Manasseh be the one expelled from the home, or Ephraim? Who would try to kill whom? Would the end be only an attempt at murder, or would things end up the way they did between Cain and Abel? Better, in Joseph's opinion, to cease trying to change the natural order of things. Let the first-born receive his rights of seniority and the younger remain the junior,[4] then at long last peace would reign in the household.

Jacob apparently understood Joseph's misgivings and therefore answered him reassuringly: "I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations" (Gen. 48:19), as if to say, "I understand what you are thinking, but what can I do when history dictates that Ephraim will indeed be greater than Manasseh, irrespective of any action I might take?"

Fortunately the chain of hostility ceased with Ephraim and Manasseh. The two remained steadfast brothers, no jealously marring their relationship, and joined Joseph's brothers as tribes, as Jacob wished. Joseph's brothers wiped out any trace of jealousy from their hearts, accepting Jacob's favoritism without the slightest grudge, when they realized that he was again openly preferring one of Rachel's sons. Moreover, they were even prepared to lay down their lives for this pampered son. Likewise, they voiced no complaint about Ephraim and Manasseh being included among Jacob's sons, even though this reconfirmed the preferential status Joseph had in his father's eyes. Thus they were all found worthy of being included in the people of Israel and receiving Abraham's blessing, as it is written, "All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell, addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him" (Gen. 49:28).

This was the appropriate moment to conclude the book of Genesis. Who would comprise the nation whose history begins in the next book of the bible was now finally determined; for the first time the assorted tribes are referred to in Exodus as "the Israelite people" (Ex. 1:9).

[1] Note how the word metzahek, rendered here as "playing," has been interpreted by the Sages as indicating the three most heinous transgressions (Genesis Rabbah 53.11):
"Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne..." Rabbi Akiva interpreted this homiletically: metzahek is none other than illicit sexual intercourse, as in the passage, "The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally (Heb. letzahek) with me" (Gen. 39:17). This indicates that our matriarch Sarah used to see Ishmael behaving disgracefully, chasing after other men's wives and seducing them. Rabbi Ishmael said: This expression does not refer to laughter (Heb. tzehok), rather to idolatry, as it is written, "They sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance (letzahek)" (Ex. 32:6, with reference to worshipping the golden calf), from which we learn that Sarah used to see Ishmael building altars, hunting grasshoppers and offering them on the altars. Rabbi Eleazar, son of Rabbi Jose ha-Gelili said: This expression does not refer to laughter, rather to bloodshed, as in the passage, "Let the young men come forward and sport (ve-yesakhaku) before us" (II Sam. 2:14). Rabbi Azariah said in the name of Rabbi Levi: Ishmael said to Isaac, "Let us go see our lots in the field." Then Ishmael would take his bow and arrow and shoot towards Isaac, putting on a pretence of playing, as it is written, "Like a madman scattering deadly firebrands, arrows, is one who cheats his fellow and says, 'I was only joking'" (Prov. 26:18-19).
[2] In the first encounter between Isaac and Rebekah, before they began building a family, the Torah describes Isaac as having "just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi" (Gen. 24:62), the very same well at which the angel had foretold Hagar about the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16:15). Therefore Genesis Rabbah 60.14 says that Isaac had gone to Beer-lahai-roi in order to bring back Hagar to his father! Also of significance is the mention of Isaac dwelling at Beer-lahai-roi (Gen. 25:11), as well as the fact that this place is mentioned only these three times.
[3] An interesting comment on Esau's relationship with his father Isaac is made in Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.) in the supplement to parashat Devarim, par. 4: Esau greatly honored his father Isaac. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel said: Esau honored his father in ways that I could not honor my own father. When I used to enter my father's room to wait on him, I would not be dressed in fine clothing. But Esau did not attend to his father in the same clothes that he used to wear outdoors. What did he do? He used to remove the clothes in which he worked and put on finery, as it is said: "Rebekah then took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were in the house" (Gen. 27:15). Cf. also Pesikta Rabbati (Ish Shalom ed.) 23.
[4] The way Joseph seated his brothers at the feast with him reflects his sensitivity to the order in which they were born -- "As they were seated by his direction, from the oldest in the order of his seniority to the youngest in the order of his youth, the men looked at one another in astonishment" (Gen. 43:33) -although he surely had additional reasons for seating them in this order.