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In our Torah portion Yosef brings his two sons to his father for a blessing. “Yosef took the two boys. He placed Efraim to his right, (to Yisrael’s left), and Menashe to his left, (Yisrael’s right). … Yisrael reached out with his right hand and placed it on Efraim’s head, thought he was the younger. He placed his left hand on Menashe’s head. He deliberately crossed his hands, even though Menashe was the firstborn. … He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater....” (Genesis 48; 13-14).
There are several questions to be asked on this section. Why does the Torah explain in such detail the position of the two boys. Is there not a simpler way that we could have been informed that Ya’akov gave Efraim the greater blessing? Secondly, why did Ya’akov change the order to bless the younger son over the elder? Surely he knew from his own experiences with his brother Esav the dangers in reversing the order of blessings. And finally, when Yosef questions his father about the order Ya’akov doesn’t seem to answer him, but simply restate what he had done.
Rashi explains that though Menashe and Efraim were brothers, they were involved in very different endeavours. Menashe spent his time in the court of Pharaoh, acting as Yosef’s interpreter (Rashi on 42; 23), whereas Efraim was involved in full-time Torah learning (48; 1). Their lifestyles complemented each other, and they had a partnership that allowed them to share the material and spiritual gains equally. Yosef knew that both of these were worthy pursuits, but it seems from their names that he felt that Efraim’s Torah learning was more important for their long term survival. “Yosef named the first-born Menashe ‘because G-d has made me forget my troubles and even my father’s house’. He named the second Efraim - ‘Because G-d has made me fruitful’. (41; 51-2). On the face of it Efraim represented the future, while Menashe severed Yosef’s links with the past. However, on a slightly deeper level we could see these two names as also showing the different approaches to serving G-d in Israel and outside of Israel respectively. In Israel Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. They worked the land and, though they also learnt ‘Torah’ from their father and grandfather, their physical relationship with the Land was paramount. In Egypt Yosef felt that the emphasis must be on Torah learning to retain the close connection with G-d, and that though he embodied Torah Im Derech Eretz, (Torah combined with living in the material world), precedence was with the Torah.
Therefore the Torah tells us that when Yosef approached Ya’akov, Efraim was on his right, symbolising the superiority of Torah outside of Israel. However, the blessing they were to receive, which was really for the time when the Jews returned to Israel, Yosef envisaged a return to the dominance of Menashe’s lifestyle, and intended Ya’akov to give him the blessing of the ‘right hand’.
Ya’akov’s response was that even in Israel Torah must still be placed before Derech Eretz. According to Rashi, Ya’akov’s response “He too will attain greatness. But his younger brother will become even greater.” refers not to numbers, but the leaders of the nation who will be descended from the two boys. The greatness of Menashe is that Gidon will come from him. The Bible introduces us to Gidon “as he was threshing wheat by the winepress...” (Judges VI; 11). His success as a saviour of Israel was based on the fact that he was a working person, not a great Torah scholar. Yet he merited to have miracles performed on his behalf because of his dedication to G-d and Israel.
However, Efraim’s descendant was Yehoshua, who was even greater. It was he who led the Jews into the Land of Israel, though he was primarily a Torah scholar and teacher, not a warrior or worker.
Thus Yosef thought that the primary need for Torah was a temporary necessity of life outside of Israel, which would be reversed upon the Jew’s return to Israel. However, Ya’akov demonstrated through his order of blessing that even in Israel precedence must be accorded to Torah learning, which would remain the prerequisite for physical and material prosperity.
Before his death, Ya’akov gathers his children around him in order to bless them. But listen to what he says to them. “Reuven, you are my firstborn... Because you were as unstable as water, you will no longer be the first. Shimon and Levi are a pair; instruments of crime are their wares. Let my soul not enter their plot.... Cursed be their rage...” By the time he got to his fourth son, Yehuda was already backing away anticipating a rebuke like those his brothers had just received! On his deathbed, has Ya’akov nothing better to say to his sons than to point out their weaknesses? Is this the blessing that he summoned them to receive?
Earlier in the reading Yosef brings his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim to Ya’akov for a blessing. Ya’akov switches his hands to place the right on Ephraim’s head, even though Ephraim is the younger. This displeases Yosef and he tries to move his father’s hands. Ya’akov justifies himself by saying that though both sons will become great, the younger will become greater than the older. It appears that Ya’akov is doing things the wrong way round. If the purpose of a blessing is to bestow greatness, couldn’t he decide through the way he places his hands, which son will be the greater? He seems bound by the future, and is not conferring greatness, but making a prophecy.
The Midrash1 states that the Torah opens with the letter beis because this is the letter of blessing. In what sense does beis represent blessing? Certainly the word b’racha begins with beis, but so do many other words, some of which even mean the opposite of blessing.
The Maharal explains that the word b’racha which is usually translated as “blessing” in fact means “increase” or “many”. Therefore the letter beis is in essence b’racha, because its numerical value is two. It is by definition “many”. Furthermore, the root of the word b’racha is the letters beis, reish, and caf. Each of these letters has a numerical value representing double. Beis is two, reish is two hundred, and caf is twenty, two tens.
When Ya’akov comes to bless his sons, he cannot redefine who they are. Rather he points out their strengths and weaknesses. Then they are able to improve themselves, by channelling their negative traits toward positive actions, and by increasing their good qualities. Similarly, Ya’akov cannot change the future for his grandsons, but he can bless them that G-d should help each of them to realise their fullest potential. Actualising one’s abilities is the increase inherent in b’racha.
The Talmud uses the following story to illustrate the concept of b’racha:
A man was walking in the desert. He was tired, hungry and thirsty. He came across a tree with sweet fruit, nice shade and a stream of water flowing beneath it. He ate from the fruit, drank from the stream and rested in the shade. When he was about to leave he said “Oh tree, how can I bless you? If I would say that your fruit should be sweet - your fruit is already sweet; that you should have pleasant shade - your shade is already pleasant; that you should have a stream flowing beneath you - you already have a stream flowing beneath you. Instead may G-d bless you that all the saplings that come from you should be like you.”2
The best blessing that one person can give to another is to help them realise and fulfil their true potential. In this way they will grow and expand and become the embodiment of b’racha.
Ya’akov called to his sons, and said, ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the last days. Gather yourselves together and hear, you sons of Ya’akov, and listen to Yisrael your father.” (Genesis 49; 1, 2). Ya’akov seems to suddenly change the subject, promising to tell his sons about the end of days, but instead continuing with the blessings.
The Talmud explains that Ya’akov wanted to reveal the time of the coming of the Messiah to his children, as they gathered at his bedside. However, at that moment the Holy Spirit departed from him, and he was unable to do so. (Pesachim 56a). Why did Ya’akov want to reveal the events of the end of days, and why G-d prevented him from so doing.
Many of the people in the Torah have had their name changed, but Ya’akov is unique in that he is still known by his former name as well as the new one. ““Your name shall no more be called Ya’akov...” (Genesis 35; 10). Not that the name Ya’akov should not be used, but that Ya’akov should be in addition to Yisrael. Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov secondary.” (Yerushalmi Berachot 1; 6). The simplest explanation for Ya’akov’s two names is that when he is referred to as an individual the name Ya’akov is used, and when the Torah speaks of him as the father of the nation, symbolically encompassing all of the nation, he is known as Yisrael.
The Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) states: Rav Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman, thus said Rabbi Yochanan, ‘Ya’akov our father never died.’ He replied, ‘In that case why did they eulogise him, embalm him and bury him?’ He said ‘I learn this fact from a verse, as it states (Jeremiah 30; 10), “Therefore fear not, my servant Ya’akov, says G-d, for I will save you from afar, and your seed (children) from the land of their captivity...” The verse connects Ya’akov to his descendants. Just as his descendants are alive, so too he is alive.’
The simple explanation of this perplexing piece of Talmud is that Ya’akov was the father of the twelve tribes, and the only patriarch to have all his children follow in his spiritual footsteps. Therefore he is more directly connected to the Jewish people, and remains alive as long as we do. However, it is strange that Rabbi Yochanan stated that Ya’akov never died. I would have expected him to use the name Yisrael, since it is referring to the patriarch in his role as progenitor of the nation.
The name Ya’akov was given to him because he was born holding on to the heel of his brother Esav. This name shows both that he is subordinate to Esav, in that he was only able to grab the lowest part of him, but also that he is involved in a constant struggle with his brother. Ya’akov managed to take away Esav’s birthright, and his blessings, but it is still the descendants of Esav who control the world physically and financially. The Jews have always remained only a small, though influential, part of the human population. The name Yisrael was given to Ya’akov after his struggle with the angel, who represented the spiritual side of Esav. The name means ‘You have struggled with angels and with people, and prevailed’. (Genesis 32; 29).
Ya’akov’s life was a microcosm of Jewish history. The trials that he faced, with his brother, Lavan, Shechem and the loss of Yosef, are trials that we are still facing today, on a national scale. Therefore it would appear that the name Ya’akov relates to the events that are part of the struggle of our existence throughout history, whereas the name Yisrael represents the final vindication and victory of the Jewish nation, that will come at the end of days. This is why Rabbi Yochanan said that Ya’akov never died. As long as the Jewish nation are still in exile, still having to face trials and suffering, Ya’akov is still alive. However, in the future, when history has run its course and the Jewish nation will be recognised for having prevailed it will be Yisrael who is alive.
Perhaps we can say that allegorically when Ya’akov wanted to reveal the end to his children, G-d hid it from him to teach him that the struggle, and the process is as important, or even more important than reaching the goal of the end of days. Realising this, Ya’akov changes his final words to his children from being an esoteric description of the Messianic era, to giving them the blessings which will help them through the world as it is at the moment.
This seems to contradict the statement from the Yerushalmi that Yisrael is the main name, and Ya’akov only secondary. However, the continuation of the Talmud there records a discussion between Ben Zoma and the sages as to whether the Exodus from Egypt will still be remembered in the times of the Messiah (a discussion which is part of the Pesach Haggadah). Ben Zoma claims that the miracles of the Messianic era will make the miracles of the Exodus irrelevant. However the sages counter, “Not that the Exodus from Egypt will be removed, rather the Exodus will be additional to the future redemption. That will be the main redemption, and the Egyptian one secondary to it.”
Though ultimately the future redemption will overshadow the Exodus from Egypt, for the present that one is more relevant and important to us. Even at the time of the ultimate redemption, we will still remember the trials, tests and miracle of the Exodus from Egypt. This is the message that Ya’akov received through the temporary loss of Divine inspiration. Though ultimately the end of days will overshadow the present events of history, our current struggles won’t be forgotten, and for the moment they are the ones that are more relevant to us.
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