Weekly D’var Torah Parashat Vayechi 5779

When Yaakov gives his blessings (or in some cases, simply pronouncements) to his sons, he begins with Yosef’s sons, Efraim and Menashe. Menashe is the older of the two sons, but Yaakov crosses his hands, and puts his right hand on Efraim’s head, and his left on Menashe’s head. Yosef was very displeased with this. He had hoped that his first-born would receive the proper blessing, but Yaakov was adamant that Efraim be given precedence, as his tribe would ultimately take ascendance over Menashe’s in the future. This does violate what the Torah says in Devarim 21:10-14, that regardless of who is favorite, the first-born son should always be given precedence, and always inherit twice as much as his siblings. This should have come as no surprise to Yosef. He was always his father’s favorite, although he was the second-youngest. His own father was the second born after Esav, and stole the blessing of the first-born from him. Yitzchak was the younger of Avraham’s two sons, but God decreed that Yitzchak should be his heir, and that Yishmael be thrown out of the house along with his mother. Why was Yosef expecting that this pattern would change? He knew first hand that this pattern never did end well. Yosef’s own brothers tried to kill him, settling for selling him into slavery, because he was the favorite. Esav swore to kill Yaakov, and so Yaakov was away from home for twenty one years. Only Yishmael swore no enmity towards his younger brother.

Other laws in the Torah related to family are given short shrift in the family of Avraham.  Vayikra 18:16 clearly tells us that a man may not marry his wife’s sister. Nor does Yehudah’s son, Shelah, marry his oldest brother’s widow, Tamar, as demanded by law, and given later in the Torah in Devarim 25:5-10.

These patterns of dysfunctional family behavior run counter to the midrashim that teach that Avraham knew the Torah before it had been given, and so knew how much time to wait between serving his guests milk and serving them meat, or before birth, Yaakov would become excited as his mother passed a beit midrash.

The stories of the Avot, the Biblical ancestors of the people Israel, are meant to teach us about human imperfection in general, and about one aspect of our imperfection in particular: our thinking, our intelligence, even our moral intelligence, is compartmentalized. It is therefore possible for Yaakov to have the prophetic dream of the ladder, to speak to God, yet still cheat his brother, make his first wife feel unloved, sow discord between sisters, and enmity among his sons by favoring one; his second-youngest. It is common for people to act extremely fairly and ethically in their personal relationships, but not in their political actions or philosophies; or the opposite. The Torah comes to make us aware of these tendencies in ourselves, and through self-awareness, effect self-change.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Aaron Shub

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