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.
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Parashat Va-Yehi 5764/ January 10, 2004
Jacob's Blessing

Benjamin Salant
Kibbutz Sa'ad

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 Rabbah 98). There, too, it says: "He commanded them regarding dissension, telling them that they should all be one assembly" (loc. sit.); or, "come together, for if you are of one mind, no creature will be a match for you" (Midrash ha-Hafetz and others).[1] 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 differences:

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 Jacob.[2]

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.

The Birthright

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 Luntschitz):

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 understand.

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.[3] The 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.[4] His 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, 5):

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" (Deut. 33:7).

[1] All the homilies cited have been taken from Menachem Kasher's Torah Shelemah, New York 1950, Vol. 8, Parashat Va-Yehi.
[2] Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, Divrei Hashkafah, Sifriyat Elinor 1992, p. 45.
[3] See bekhorah in the Encyclopedia Mikrait.
[4] See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in the Book of Genesis, 1972, pp. 483-488; 490-494.