Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Va-Yehi 5764/ January 10, 2004
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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Va-Yehi 5764/ January 10, 2004
Parashat Va-Yehi brings to a close an extensive family saga,
full of moving dreams, missions and human tragedy. The plot does not gloss over
the sins of the brothers, nor does it omit details of difficult embroilment, and
so succeeds in conveying the dramatic humanness of the actors.
Jacob's Blessing to His Sons
The blessing, which comprises the main part of this
week's reading, raises several questions. Is it indeed a blessing? On
this, Ibn Ezra says, "Those who say that they are blessings, are
mistaken... Where is the blessing in what was said to Reuben, Simeon and
Levi?" (cf. Hizkuni, loc. sit.). Abarbanel explains the purpose of
Jacob's words as follows: "Not meant to be a blessing, nor meant to
be a reproach, nor to foretell the future... but to say whether or not they were
worthy of having sovereignty and dominion." Blessing or otherwise, there
are three undisputed components in Jacob's testament: a call for unity,
grant of the birthright, and appointment of a leader.
Five phrases in the beginning of Jacob's testament (Gen.
49:1-2) convey the idea of unity: "And Jacob called...,"
"come together," "assemble," "and hearken, O sons
of Jacob," and "Hearken to Israel" (Gen. 49:1-2).
Radak's commentary on these verses says, "He called them, that they
come together before him"; and Rashbam explains (loc. sit.
"for they had become a numerous people." The Midrash explains this
well: "Come together from around Egypt and assemble in Raamses... for
they were dispersed, and he gathered them by the Holy Spirit" (Genesis
98). There, too, it says: "He commanded them regarding
dissension, telling them that they should all be one assembly" (loc.
); or, "come together, for if you are of one mind, no creature
will be a match for you" (Midrash ha-Hafetz
We can appreciate that Jacob may
have feared that the tribes, being widely dispersed and having many differences
and controversies, would be in danger of assimilation; this factor also called
for closing ranks. Regarding Jacob's repetition of the word
"hearken," the midrash says: "Hearken to the blessing;
hearken to the reproach" (Ner ha-Sekhalim
, Torah Shelemah
The Netziv (Ha-amek Davar
) explains: "Since they could not all
gather around Jacob's bed, the tribes heard him first, and then
transmitted his words to the entire nation." Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
gives an impassioned explanation: "Assemble and hearken! On these two
words, uttered by our patriarch on his deathbed, hangs all of Jewish history to
the end of days ... because you are a helpless minority, assemble and be united,
solidify into a single nation."
Rabbi Soloveitchik stressed the need for harmony despite
All the blessings lend expression to the differences and
uniqueness of Jacob's sons and Jacob's household. Each and every
one of Jacob's sons had a unique personality, and often there were
substantial contrasts between them. Judaism comprises any number of
diametrically opposing elements which are united in the form of the generality
of the Jewish people, in which all the unique qualities of the sons of Jacob
come together in harmony... The unity is comprised of all the various spiritual
strengths of the tribes of the house of
Indeed, the importance of unity was proved several times in
the course of biblical history. When the monarchy was split, in the time of
Rehoboam and Jeroboam, the weakness of division led to fighting between Judah
and Israel and later to the exile and disappearance of the ten tribes.
Joseph was given a double inheritance, which is the economic
expression of the birthright. This promise is stated in the special blessing
that Joseph and his sons received before the general blessing:
"Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I
came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less
than Reuben and Simeon" (Gen. 48:5), although in his testament Jacob does
not explicitly state that Joseph is to receive the birthright.
After Jacob's testament, Reuben is mentioned as being
Israel's first-born three times; once in Exodus (6:14), "the sons of
Reuben, Israel's first-born," and twice in Numbers (1:20; 26:5). In
Moses' blessing Reuben is the first one blessed although he is not given
the title of first-born, whereas Joseph is said to be "like a firstling
bull in his majesty" (Deut. 33:17), leaving room to wonder whether this
epithet indicated that his was the birthright.
Chronicles' verses on this subject need mention:
The sons of Reuben the first-born of Israel. (He was the
first-born; but when he defiled his father's bed, his birthright was given
to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so he is not reckoned as first-born in the
genealogy; though Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came
from him, yet the birthright belonged to Joseph). The sons of Reuben, the
first-born of Israel: (I Chron. 5:1-3)
Logically, this passage is a tautology, which does not allow
any clear deductions to be drawn from the three verses. Most of the
commentators, as well, come to no definitive judgment in this regard. The most
reasonable explanation is that Reuben held the title of first-born, Joseph the
double inheritance, and Judah the leadership.
Throughout Genesis we encounter stories of the birthright
being contested: Isaac vs. Ishmael, Jacob vs. Esau, and Joseph vs. his
brothers. It has been suggested that all these instances serve to teach us that
the status of first-born should not be considered sacrosanct. An original view
on this is presented in Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim
In any event, his younger brother would become greater than
him... because the Holy One, blessed be He, is more inclined to choose the
younger, and any person who has some element that makes him small, the more the
Holy One, blessed be He, elevates him to tens of thousands. As it is said:
"It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set
His heart upon you and chose you - indeed, you are the smallest of
peoples" (Deut. 7:7); and, "The smallest shall become a clan; the
least a mighty nation" (Is. 60:22). This happened to all of
Abraham's progeny... Reuben was Jacob's first-born; Reuben was
disqualified and Joseph was chosen; Manasseh was Joseph's first-born;
Ephraim was chosen over him. This alludes to something; and may the wise
To the Kli Yakar
's interpretation we should add
what was said to Rebecca prior to the birth of Jacob and Esau: "And the
older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Some peoples have a custom
known as the "law of the youngest," by which preferential rights are
given to the youngest of the household.
position taken by Jacob in his blessing to his children can be understood in
terms of the unusual solution which he chose. He was faced with the following
dilemma: on one hand, Joseph was his favorite son and the first-born of Rachel,
his beloved wife, but on the other hand Joseph's status among his brothers
was shaky insofar as his brothers were still wary and distrustful of him. Later
on they utter the harsh words, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge
against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!" (Gen.
50:15). In light of this, Jacob grants Joseph the economic status of the
birthright, but grants Judah the leadership.
It could be said that Judah receiving the leadership was
dictated by reality, or was the inevitable result of the situation that emerged
in the relationships among the brothers. Joseph, as we pointed out, did not
have the complete trust of his brothers. True, he was in an important position
of economic strength, but the main source of his might stemmed from the
authority granted him by Pharaoh. Judah, in contrast, acquired his standing
most naturally. Several times, acting as spokesman for his brothers, he proved
his skill as a negotiator and his powers of persuasion. His proposal,
"What do we gain by killing our brother?" (Gen. 37:26) indicates
that Joseph was in danger of losing his life in the pit into which he had been
cast. Judah's suggestion that they sell Joseph was set against
Reuben's suggestion, and it was his idea that was adopted, as Scriptures
emphasizes: "His brothers agreed" (Gen. 37:27). In another
instance Judah persuaded his father to let them take Benjamin, succeeding where
Reuben had failed.
Judah acted as the spokesman of the brothers, delivering the
famous speech which tipped the scales.
skillful oration was at once humble yet forceful, enabling Judah ultimately to
succeed in his mission. Joseph was forced to reveal his identity, even though
he had not intended to do so yet; the outcome is what determines success in
negotiations. Another test faced by Judah was the Tamar incident, in which he
admitted his sin and accepted full responsibility for his actions, thereby
showing honesty and decency.
When Jacob states in his blessing, "You, O Judah, your
brothers shall praise" (Gen. 49:8), this should be understood at face
value: you are well regarded by your brothers and they rely on you. In his
concern about the future of the tribes and the future of the people that was to
emerge before they returned to the land of Israel, Jacob sought the most
appropriate candidate for the leader, one who would succeed in binding the
tribes together and leading them. Judah received the status of leader not by
birthright but by Jacob's choice as most suitable for this calling. It
must be noted that the concept of the "tribes of Israel"
(Gen. 49:16) appears for the first time in Jacob's blessing. Also the
concept of a people appeared for the first time in Jacob's blessing
to Ephraim and Manasseh.
The Sages did not always praise Judah. The gemara and
midrashim also voice criticism, sometimes quite sharp, for his deeds. An
all-encompassing example is provided by the Mekhilta, where a punctilious
account is kept of all Judah's actions (Tractate Beshalah,
They said to him [Rabbi Tarfon], "Master, teach us by
what virtue Judah merited the kingdom?" Rabbi Tarfon answered,
"Tell me, yourselves!" They said, "By virtue of his having
said, 'What do we gain by killing our brother?' (Gen. 37:26), and
thereby saving him from death." He said to them, "Saving
Joseph's life would be only enough to atone for selling him into
slavery." If so, then by virtue of that which he said: "And Judah
recognized them, and said: 'She is more in the right than I'"
(Gen. 38:26). He said to them: "His confession would be only enough to
atone for his cohabitation with her." If so, then by virtue of his having
said: "Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord
instead of the boy" (Gen. 44:33). He said to them: "We find in
every case that the guarantor must pay." They then said to him:
"Master, you teach us by what virtue Judah merited the kingdom." He
said to them: "When the tribes of Israel stood at the sea, one said:
'I want to go down to the sea first,' and the other said: 'I
want to go down to the sea first,' as it is said: 'Ephraim
surrounds me with deceit' (Hos. 12:1). While they were thus standing
deliberating with one another, Nahshon the son of Amminadab, followed by his
tribe, jumped into the midst of the waves of the sea. Therefore the tribe of
Judah merited kingdom, as it is said: 'When Israel went forth from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judah became His holy
one' (Ps. 114:1-2) and therefore, "Israel, His dominion"
(loc. sit.). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: "He who
sanctified My name at the sea shall come and rule over Israel." Then the
elders thanked Rabbi Tarfon.
This midrash, which lauds the tribe of Judah (not Judah
himself), succeeds in strictly assessing Judah's actions and calling him
to account. Nevertheless, "Judah became more powerful than his
brothers" (I Chron. 5:2), and "his own hands strong for him"
All the homilies cited have
been taken from Menachem Kasher's Torah Shelemah
, New York 1950,
Vol. 8, Parashat Va-Yehi.
Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik,
, Sifriyat Elinor 1992, p. 45.
See Nehama Leibowitz,
Studies in the Book of Genesis
, 1972, pp. 483-488; 490-494.