Parashat Vayechi: Do I even know you, my youngest son?
The book of Genesis, which we completed with this week’s reading of Parashat Vayehi, has all of the elements we’d expect to see in a masterpiece. It can be read as a short story, as a novel, or as a screenplay. We can watch it, as if it were a play, or listen to it as if it were a symphony. A symphony which is nothing but a song of praise, extolling the virtues of the raw materials that have been used in works of art since the days of old: relationships. Relationships between man and fellow man, between husbands and wives, between brothers, between fathers and sons, between people and G-d… all of these are assessed and clarified throughout the book of Genesis. Of all the diverse types of relationships, we’ll choose two stories to focus on, which we’ll keep in mind as we bid an emotional farewell to the book of Genesis. The first story is from this week’s Parasha, Parashat Vayechi, and the second is taken from Parashat Toldot. These two stories uniquely focus on the stirring moment when the father figure, on his deathbed, lays before his son, wondering: “Who are you, after all? Do I even know you?”
One specific scene caught my attention in this week’s Parasha: Jacob blesses his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe, while crossing his hands, so that from that moment on, the youngest son will take precedent over the oldest, and from that day forward, the two would be referred to as “Ephraim and Menashe”. Let’s briefly reconstruct the situation: Jacob understands that his days are numbered, and wishes to give his last blessing to his children. He wishes to bless Joseph’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, as well. The Torah tells us that at this stage, Jacob’s eyes “became heavy with age, and could not see…” In fact, when Joseph’s two sons approach Jacob to receive their blessing, Jacob asks: “Who are these?” Joseph responds, saying “they are my sons,” and brings them closer to Jacob’s deathbed so that they could receive the blessing. Jacob lays his hands on the children’s heads, but instead of laying his right hand on the head of the elder child, Menashe, and his left hand on the head of the younger child, Ephraim, he crosses his hands and stretches them out diagonally. His right hand rests on the younger child’s head, and his left hand rests on the elder child’s head. Joseph, who realized what had happened, assumed that his father had made a mistake: “And Joseph said to his father ‘Not so, my father, for this is the eldest, place your right hand on his head”. However, Jacob explains his intention: “And his father hesitated, and said ‘I know, my son, I know, he, too, will become a nation, he, too, will become great, yet his brother will become even greater.”
I feel this is déja vu – this isn’t the first time Jacob has changed the order of blessings. This story immediately takes me back several chapters, to Parashat Toldot, and the well-known plot involving Jacob, who substituted for his older brother, earning himself, the younger son, the blessing that was intended for his older brother. The text seems to want to create that sense of déja vu that links the two events. In the case of both fathers, we have, for example, the recurring motif of the scene before the final blessing is given: “It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see…” (Genesis 27:1), and “Now Israel’s eyes had become heavy with age, [to the extent that] he could not see…” (ibid. 48:10) Indeed, these two fathers were Isaac and Jacob, who faced their children and grandchildren in a certain state of blindness. They are unable to clearly make out their children. Yet Isaac’s blindness is different from Jacob’s. We need to distinguish between them.
Isaac was blessing his sons, Jacob and Esau, while blind to their spiritual status. His blessing was based on his unwavering faith in the laws of reality – that the elder son should always come before the younger son. Alternatively, he may have felt a “softer” faith in the intensely warm, fatherly feelings he had toward his son, Esau. These two tendencies – namely, the realistic and rigid quality of seeking justice, versus the virtue of kindness, blinded by overwhelming love – do not help Isaac see his sons for what they truly were. If Jacob hadn’t done something subversive to steal the birthright from his older brother by impersonating him, the blessing given by Isaac to his children may have been eternally inscribed in the Biblical narrative as the mother of all miscalculations, as a father stands helpless, crushed when his grand expectations of his sons goes unfulfilled. Often, a father’s dreams, beliefs, hopes and even fears muddle the love he feels for his children. It is then that the father’s expectations and love form a sort of smokescreen between him and his children, trapping each of them on all sides, in a predetermined box, which one can’t break free of as long as the other isn’t able to let go. Jacob understands the trap his father was in, and deceived him in order to set him free.
When he grew old, Jacob would play the same trick – swapping the blessings, but this time, it was Joseph that was tricked, when Jacob crossed his hands as Joseph looked on in disbelief. In this story, Joseph plays the same role as Isaac did decades earlier. He sees his boys through the prism of reality, which remains true to the rules of the game, dictating that the world “should” is of chief importance. According to this view, the eldest child should be the greatest, and the youngest should be second-best. Joseph contemplated his sons’ personalities as they prepared to be blessed. He strove to explore what the future has in store for them by looking at their present character, keeping in mind the adage of “this young boy will one day be great”, but he doesn’t let his imagination go too far. His glance gets “stuck” on the outside, on definitions and rules, on what “should” be, and on “realistic expectations”. For Joseph, “the future is already here”, but not in the invigorating sense of the expression. Quite the contrary. To Joseph, nothing was new under the sun.
Jacob knows this glance only too well. He keenly remembers when, as a young boy, he was subjected to this type of scrutiny. It was a blind glance that is oblivious to the three-dimensionality of reality. Now, Jacob, himself, has already gone blind, but inwardly, his eyes are highly perceptive. They listen to the mystery and the surprise embodied by his grandsons. We can now understand Jacob’s question to Joseph: “Who are these?” This wasn’t the question of a blind man trying in vain to perceive reality, but rather the question of a prophet, who rattles revealed reality, challenging it in his own mysterious way: “Who are you? Are you truly who I think you are?” And so, with closed eyes, heavy with age, Jacob scans the world, end to end, and realizes that “his younger brother shall be greater than him, and his seed will beget many nations”.
If so, we are now engaged in exploring two types of blindness. For Isaac, this was a rigid and debilitating blindness, which tries to latch on to the laws of reality or his own emotional tendencies as if they were a walking stick. Yet for Jacob, blindness gave him more flexibility. It had a sobering effect, opening up new options that his ordinary sense of vision would never be exposed to.
In summary, we’ll offer some food for thought: Joseph responded to Jacob’s hand-crossing with wonder. Yet if we explore Joseph’s character, we’ll admit the truth – Joseph’s wonderment evokes further wonderment. After all, Joseph, of all people, should understand the delicate dynamics behind the question of “who is supposed to be great.” Joseph had experienced this tension all his life, from the moment he had dreamed of stars and sheaves of grain, until his came to rule over Egypt, and by extension, over his brothers. Why hadn’t Joseph acquired the flexibility required to correctly assess the level of surprise that reality could produce?
Why hadn’t Joseph learned the secret of nahafoch hu – “it was turned upside down”, so that he could dictate new rules for reality?
Yet it is Joseph’s life story, a life rife with agitation and fluctuations between the highest peaks and the deepest chasms, which reach their end in this week’s Parasha, it is precisely this story that best demonstrates the heavy price to paid for shattering the conventions of “what should be”. Joseph, who had experienced the price he had to pay for taking this path, isn’t able to pass on this understanding, as is, to his youngest son. He refused to give his youngest son this curse of a blessing. This is why he needed a generation gap, for the grandfather, Jacob, to confer on Ephraim the destiny planned for his grandson in the generational chain: Jacob – Joseph – Ephraim: “This little one will one day be great”.