Parshat Vayechi: A Blessing for Two, A Blessing for All Time
As parents and educators, it’s crucial that we develop two character traits in our children. The first is the ability to live harmoniously with their siblings, and remember that we are all “children of one man”, even at times of strife. The second – to be able to withstand foreign influences.
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Have no fear! … although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ … Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50, 19-21).
This is precisely what happened. Joseph took care of his brothers and their families until his dying day. Joseph was the last person to be quoted in the Book of Genesis, and this statement of his reflects both compassion and his request to his brothers: you will be leaving here – but please, don’t forget me when you return to the Promised Land.
This isn’t the only event we encounter in the parsha that could have led to a rift in the family. When Jacob gives Joseph’s sons their blessings, we once again fear they might revert to the state in which one child is favored over another, resulting in envy, contempt and vengeance. As Jacob approaches Menashe and Efraim, he crosses his hands, placing his right hand on the head of his youngest grandson, Efraim, in spite of the fact that the right hand symbolizes honor and birthright, and should have been placed on Menashe’s head. Joseph tries to correct his father, but his efforts were in vain. Jacob was determined to give the greatest blessing to Efraim, claiming that he was “greater than him [Menashe]”. In light of developments in the Book of Genesis leading to this point, we would expected a serious drama to have ensued. One son would have been favored and the other would have been banished, and this would have led to a heated argument between the brothers. It would have caused something to happen, but ultimately, nothing happens. Nothing at all.
The brothers accept the blessings without fanfare. As brothers.
The children of Israel are on the verge of becoming a nation, just before a long period of servitude in Egypt, but here, finally, we see that this family succeeds in staying together, maintaining a relationship founded on love, fraternity, peace and friendship. There was no jealousy, competition, or family dispute here. Now that they can all live side by side and become role models for proper family life, it is time for the next stages in the development of the patriarchal dynasty – servitude, a period when the family’s numbers swell, evolving into a nation, when the promise in the Brit Ben Habetarim (the “covenant of parts”) is fulfilled, and when they receive the rights to the Promised Land. Jacob’s sons’ development into a nation, the nation of Israel, entails a new challenge – resisting Egyptian culture and maintaining their unique identity, a principle expressed in the Midrash: “This teaches us that Israel were set apart there, that their food, clothes, and language was different than the Egyptians’ (Pesikta Zutarta, parshat Tavo, page 46a).
As parents and educators, it’s crucial that we develop these two character traits in our children: the ability to live harmoniously with their siblings, and remember that we are all “children of one man”, even at times of strife, able to manage the conflicts and disputes between them accordingly. What, then, is the second character trait we must instill in our children? The ability to resist foreign influences leading them down questionable paths. All of this education starts in the home, and eventually permeates out.
We encounter these two character traits in parshat Vayechi. After great efforts, Jacob’s sons learn how to live together. It was a long process, fraught with difficulties, but ultimately, they succeeded. By overcoming the difficulties he faces – perhaps even thanks to those difficulties – Joseph succeeds in teaching his sons to tread down the right path. They withstand these two temptations particularly well.
In his book, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky states the following: “Efraim was more prone to becoming consumed in Egyptian culture than his brother was. By the time Efraim was born, Joseph had already become well acclimated in Egypt, a fact reflected in Efraim’s name, which is derived from ‘Hashem has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Jacob laid his right hand on Efraim’s head because it was Efraim who had to resist the greatest temptations. Menashe’s name, in contrast, expresses the fact that when he was born, Joseph was still somewhat influenced by his father’s house. Efraim, however, symbolizes Joseph’s integration into Egyptian society, and this is why he needed a more powerful blessing. Jacob was wise enough to realize that Joseph’s sons, who were born and who had grown up within a foreign culture, far from the influence of their extended family, needed additional support. The Torah emphasizes Jacob’s blessing of these two grandchildren, but not any of the other grandchildren. Jacob understood the need to drive home the fact that they are an integral part of the family – “They shall be like Reuben and Simeon for me…”. Naturally, physical and cultural distance takes its toll, making it all the more important to impress upon them that they were sons of Jacob, sons of Israel, with all that this entails.
When we bless our children, we don’t do so in the name of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, we invoke the names of Efraim and Menashe, two brothers who grew up in a foreign land, within a hostile culture, and had nonetheless succeeded in maintaining their close bonds and their relationship with their grandfather, Israel. These are the things we wish to instill in our own children. As they prepare to emerge from our homes and connect to the nation, we must, first and foremost, stress the importance of family, close bonds, peace and fraternity. We must impart in them the connection to our tradition and our effort to meet all of the challenges life deals out. If we are wise enough to teach these things to our children and convey the message that they are an inseparable part of the family, we’ll be able to ensure these virtues live on when they – and us – leave our homes and venture out into the world around us.
We are all the children of one man. May it be Hashem’s will that we will be able to truly sit together, as brothers, and face the challenges and obstacles of the wider world.
We shall only grow stronger, together.