Parashat Vayehi 5781

January 1, 2021 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, Uncategorized

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayehi
By Rabbi Jill Hackell (’13)The Smothers brothers had an ongoing routine in which Tommy (the older brother), complained to Dickie (the younger brother), “Mom always liked you best”. It was funny because their squabbles reflected the sibling rivalry that was present, to some degree, in every family.

I didn’t realize at the time that it also reflected almost the entire book of Bereshit (Genesis) in the Torah. Parental favoritism – especially of the younger child over the older – and sibling rivalry is a theme that runs throughout. Brothers vie for position, for approval, for birthright, for blessing, and time after time, it is the younger, rather than the elder who is favored. Here are some examples.

Jacob and Esau struggle with each other even in the womb. Esau, the firstborn, is favored by his father, Jacob by his mother. Esau impulsively gives up his birthright but is devastated when Jacob deceives his father and receives his father’s blessing in his stead. Jacob flees to avoid his brother’s murderous rage.

Joseph is also a younger brother, though he is the firstborn of his father’s favored wife, Rachel. His father gives him a special coat, and he brags about his dreams, which predict that he will rule over his family. His brothers are incensed, and plot to kill him.  They throw him in a pit, sell him to some traders who bring him to Egypt, and tell his father he is dead.

Which brings us to today’s parashah, the last in the Book of Bereshit. Jacob and his entire family are now living in Egypt, and Joseph learns that his father is ill. He comes to his father’s bedside, bringing with him his two sons, Menashe, the elder, and Ephraim, the younger.

First, Jacob deals with the issue of birthright, which should by rights go to his firstborn Reuven, son of Leah. Jacob adopts Menashe and Ephraim as his own sons “Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine no less than Reuven and Shimon” (Gen. 48:5). In effect, this gives a double-portion (normally the right of the firstborn), to Joseph, his favored child.

Next, he moves to bless the two boys. Joseph, perhaps because of all he has been through, is keenly aware of protocol and places his older son by his father’s right hand, and the younger by his left. Jacob reaches out and crosses his hands, as we see the reversal of older and younger about to play out once again. Joseph takes his father’s hand, saying “Not so, Father, for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.” And Jacob replies “I know, my son, I know” (Gen. 48:18-19).

These simple words, “I know, my son, I know”, contain so much. In them, I hear the knowledge acquired by Jacob over a lifetime. I know – that parents shouldn’t favor one child over the next, and yet the history of our family is that we have done it, over and over again. I know – that siblings will fight with each other for the approval and blessing of their parents. I know – that this is a field fraught with raw emotion and pain. And yet, I know – that children are different, they are not all endowed with the same natural gifts. Some have God-given talents for leadership or other qualities necessary to carry on the family heritage; others do not.

So he blessed them that day, saying, ‘by you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’” (Gen. 48:20) And so we do to this day, on Friday night between the lighting of the candles and the kiddush before our Shabbat meal.

I like to think that when Jacob says that all Israel should invoke blessing through Ephraim and Menashe, that he has learned an important lesson. It may be that he foresees that Ephraim will be the one to pass on the family heritage (Ephraim’s descendants will include Joshua), and so he couldn’t help but to cross his hands, but unlike his previous actions and those of his ancestors, his movement is subtle. He does not allow one child to feel lesser than the other. The soul-destroying sibling rivalry that we have seen with other siblings does not come between Ephraim and Menashe. For this reason, future children can be blessed in their name.

On Friday night as I place my hand (virtually, for now) on the heads of my children and my wriggling little grandchildren, I give no thought to who is under my right hand and who is under my left hand. And I know, in part because of the stories of Torah have taught us, the hazards of parental favoritism and sibling rivalry. I know that though children are different and may or may not resemble us or what we have envisioned for them, they are each special in their own way. They are, each of them, a blessing, and what they all need from us – is love.
Rabbi Jill Hackell M.D. (AJR ’13) is the rabbi of West Clarkstown Jewish Center in New City, N.Y. She also serves on the AJR Board, as liaison to ARC (Association of Rabbis and Cantors), and teaches bioethics in both secular and Jewish settings.