Parashat Vayehi: Birthright or blessings?

Genesis climaxes with the death-bed scene where Jacob bestows blessings on his sons.

jacob death bed rembrandt 88 (photo credit: )
jacob death bed rembrandt 88
(photo credit: )
The climax of the biblical portion of Vayehi - and indeed of the entire Book of Genesis - is the death-bed scene in which Jacob/Israel bestows blessings on each of his sons, the future 12 tribes of our nation. After all, the deepest biblical conflicts arose in the hot and heavy competition for the birthright and blessings. Which son of this last Patriarch would carry the Abrahamic mission forward, and why? We have seen how the qualities which Abraham was to pass on - if the promise that "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed" was to be realized - were "compassionate righteousness and moral justice" (Gen. 18:19). To these must be added a profound consciousness of God, and a commitment to the Land and the mission (Gen. 12:1-3). When the Bible comes to the third generation, however, and Jacob is blessed with 12 sons, the major characteristic of the standard-bearer must be his ability to unite the family. Jacob thought he had the perfect candidate: his beautiful, brilliant Joseph, firstborn of his beloved Rachel. However, Joseph's arrogance bred resentment, thereby alienating him from his siblings and fracturing the family. Clearly, it was Jacob's all-too-obvious favoritism which began the familial dissolution; but Joseph added fuel to the fire by bringing back tales of his brothers' transgressions and reporting dreams in which his siblings - as well as their father and mother - all bow down to him as though he were their king (Gen. 37:3-9). Apparently, if he could not win their fealty by approbation, he hoped to impose it upon them by divine fiat. The family is ruptured; Joseph is sold into Egyptian slavery, Jacob is suspicious of the role the brothers may have played in his beloved son's "disappearance" but is reluctant to cause even more dissension by voicing his doubts. The patriarch remains a disconsolate mourner. And then the siblings are united once again when the brothers arrive in Egypt once, and then a second time to purchase food. To be sure, Joseph is hidden behind the mask of the Grand Vizier. But we, the readers, are aware - and we become aware at the same time of the potential for family reunification. Here in Egypt the hidden Joseph and Judah - the other candidate for the birthright (see my commentary on Vayeshev) - stand opposite each other. Each has come a long way in repairing his personality flaws: Judah has had his eyes opened by means of the incident with Tamar, which taught him the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions and for the familial future (Petah Einayim, Gen. 37:14-26), establishing his credentials as a paragon of moral justice; and Joseph has proven his moral rectitude by escaping the advances of Mrs. Potiphar, and has learned to replace himself with God at center stage as a result of his Egyptian adventures (Gen. 41:16). But who will succeed in repairing their broken family? At the end of the portion we read two weeks ago (Miketz), Joseph seems to have made a decision: He has given up on the brothers who cast him into the pit, and even on the father who created the dysfunctional family by his blatant favoritism; perhaps when he thinks back as to how his father sent him out to seek his brothers and rebuked him for his second dream, he even believes that the patriarch was part of the plot to get rid of him. No, the Grand Vizier wishes to spend the rest of his life in Egypt with his only true brother, Benjamin, child of the same mother Rachel, who was too young to have had any hand in the near fratricide in Dothan. To blazes with the family, he thinks. He now has a new Egyptian family! Judah, as he confronts the Grand Vizier in last week's portion, has an entirely different agenda. Once the Grand Vizier rejected his offer that all the brothers become his slaves on account of the stolen goblet, he realizes that their trouble in Egypt was not a punishment from God for mistreating Joseph. But then, why had they been singled out in such a punitive fashion? Who in Egypt might be out to get them? Unless, unless the Grand Vizier was actually Joseph... Judah, now that he thinks he has uncovered the true identity of this vizier, clearly sees the difficult task which lies before him: He must find a way to bring Joseph back into the bosom of the family, create a rapprochement between Jacob and all his sons, and do it in a way in which everyone will understand the uselessness of dredging up past history. And so Judah faces Joseph the Grand Vizier, ostensibly pleading for Benjamin's freedom, but picturing in the process an old father who deeply loved the two sons of Rachel, who concluded that Joseph must have been torn by a wild beast (44:28), and who has been mourning ever since. Not only does he disabuse Joseph of any thought that their father had been involved in the plot, but he also subtly tries to impute guilt upon Joseph for not contacting his old, grieving father. How can he inflict further pain on the patriarch by keeping him from Benjamin? Moreover, in offering himself as a slave in place of Benjamin, Judah is proving that he - and presumably all the brothers - have learned the lesson of brotherly love. Judah succeeds. Joseph reveals himself and rejoins the family by sending for his father to come to Egypt. Jacob and his children have been reunited - by Judah, who has thus proven that he is the most worthy recipient of the birthright. One more point remains to be made. I have previously attempted to show (in accordance with the commentary of the Malbim) that Isaac had planned to make a split between the birthright - the Abrahamic vision of world peace and redemption, a gathering-in of all the nations to accept ethical monotheism - and the blessings of material success, technological expertise, economic infrastructure and military protection. Rebekah disagreed, believing that Jacob was to have both the blessings and the birthright; Jacob had to deceive his father only in order to get the material blessings, since the spiritual birthright had always been waiting for him. Jacob has now repented for his deception; he realizes that his father had been more correct than his mother. Children are different, each with his/her unique strengths and capabilities. He, the wholehearted dweller in tents, was better suited to the more spiritual birthright and his more aggressive brother - who had "spurned the birthright" probably because he didn't really appreciate it - should have gotten the blessings. Indeed, the pursuit of material blessings almost turned Jacob into Esau when he stayed with his uncle Laban (as we have previously seen). Had Isaac's plan won the day, perhaps the united family of Jacob and Esau - with each respecting the strengths of the other and working together toward a united goal - might have brought redemption at the very dawn of our history. This is the idea behind the united blessing Jacob gave to his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, with the right hand going to the one most deserving of the birthright and the left hand to the one most deserving of the blessings, irrespective of who was born first. And so Jacob bestows the Messianic birthright upon Judah, unifier of family and ultimate unifier of the world, to whom his brothers gave praise and homage, the lawgiver to whom will eventually come an ingathering of nations (Gen. 49:8, 10). And he bestowed upon the most successful, universal provider Joseph, conqueror of all his enemies, the blessings of the heavens above and the depths below, the double portion of womb and breasts (Gen. 49:22-26). The Midrash teaches that there will be two Messiahs, the first being a son of Joseph who will establish the material infrastructure of the Jewish State, and then the second, a son of Judah, who will restore the Temple as a source of freedom, peace and security for the entire world. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.