Vayechi - Setting the Standard of Disruption
From the origins of creation to the creation of Am Yisrael, the book of Genesis has endeavored to explain the inception of the world as we know it as a Jewish people. We have read stories describing how the world functions, family dynamics, geopolitical structures of the Ancient Near East, and more. And this week, as Jacob is getting ready to die, we begin to see the close of our story as a Jewish family, and the introduction of our larger narrative as a nation.
To this point in the Torah, the family of Abraham had been small enough to name all the individuals. Abraham, with his advanced age, had only fathered one son who would carry on his legacy (although others did come along who should not go entirely ignored). Isaac, meanwhile, has two children, and those two children go on to become great nations in their own right. Jacob’s offspring were more extensive, but not so much so that we don’t have a record of their names and their deeds. By the time we conclude the sojourn into Egypt that we have begun this past week, the descendants of Jacob will be numerous, their number will cover the entire land. The book of Genesis helped to explain where we have come from, but by the end of Parashat Vayechi, we are ready to move to the next phase of our evolution.
One of the largest transitions that we get from the book of Genesis into the subsequent books of the Torah is the style of narrative. The four books that follow are far more legal in nature, and help to codify Jewish practice for generations to come. That isn’t to say the storytelling that we have come to expect from the first book doesn’t continue, but the primary focus of the document becomes ever more focused on creating a legal structure that will be at the heart of Jewish observance moving forward.
This comes to the forefront when we examine the interaction between Jacob and his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasseh. At the end of his life, Jacob calls his favored son, Joseph, forward, asking that he bring his two children along the way. Jacob presents Manasseh, the elder son, and Ephraim, the younger, to his father, in order that they may receive a blessing. Jacob is set to make them unique tribes of their own, rather than simply a single tribe of “Joseph” to which each will have a claim. This is a distinguished honor, and demonstrates a continuation of the problematic displays of favoritism that have permeated the entire story of Genesis.
As Jacob is about to bless his grandsons, though, we read, “Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand - to Israel’s left - and Manasseh with his left hand - to Israel’s right - and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head - thus crossing his hands - although Manasseh was the first born.” (Genesis 48:13-14) In Jewish tradition, the right hand was often used to signify dominance, preference, and honor. (This left-handed rabbi rejects this notion, but whatever…) By switching his hands, Jacob was, in essence, prioritizing the younger son over the older, giving the more dominant blessing to the “inferior” son. Joseph tries to correct this, but his father insists that it is no accident; while both sons will grow into great nations of their own right, it is Ephraim who will loom larger than Manasseh.
We are, of course, well familiar with younger siblings dominating their elders throughout the stories of Genesis. Seth, the third son born to Adam and Eve, becomes the progenitor of humankind, while Cain, the oldest, is cursed for his misdeeds. Ishmael is the eldest son to Abraham, but it is Isaac through whom the covenant is continued. Jacob steals the birthright from his father, overtaking the dominance of his brother Esau. And Jacob famously favors his penultimate son, Joseph, enraging his other children. Why, then, should we take any particular note of yet another instance of a younger brother taking the spotlight away from his first-born brother?
What makes this situation different is that, in most other cases, the younger brother in some way cheats his older brother out of his birthright, stealing rather than being given with intention and care. Jacob does not, in this instance, stop the tradition that his family has continually codified over the generations, but instead does so with intention, thought, and consideration. He does not forsake the older brother, nor leave any animosity to stew between the two of them. They are both blessed, and only through the subtle act of crossing his hands does he honor the tradition of lifting up the younger to supersede the older.
This is, in and of itself, indicative of the long history in Judaism for evolution and creativity. By so frequently honoring younger siblings, Jewish tradition challenges the predominant belief of the time that birth order should determine societal status. This is an idea that has persisted even into today in some communities, only further validating the courage and significance of Judaism’s confrontation of the norm. But more than it subverts the single tradition in question, far more important is the notion that Judaism creates a paradigm for change and innovation built right into the essence of the religious doctrine. If Jacob was thoughtfully reinventing the way Jews engage with the world, even before “Jews” were what we now know them to be, how much more so is it our opportunity and obligation to continually be thinking about the social constructs we maintain, and the ones that we choose to reinvent and subvert through our own behavior. Judaism is not, according to our namesake and progenitor, a stagnant tradition that is doomed to repeat itself over and over again for all eternity. It is, instead, a constantly evolving language through which we experience the world around us.
The book of Genesis teaches us our history. We read the stories and the values that are passed from one generation to the next, moving through the ages with constant interpretation and re-evaluation. Throughout these past 50 chapters, we have read different ideas that our ancestors wanted to keep at the forefront of our understanding of our faith. We have read about the importance of physical space, and the ways in which we must maintain a sacred relationship with land in order to validate our connection to our God. We have read about the importance of family, and the many ways that families interact in healthy and unhealthy ways. We have seen the beauty and vitality of remaining connected with God, and the ways that a spiritual tradition can impact our lives in both a symbolic and literal way. And in this last Parashah, we also see what it looks like to constantly be evaluating the traditions that are yet to come, and to be in constant connection to the essence of what we are trying to accomplish, and how we can use our legal structure to lift up our values, rather than having our values dictated by the legal prescriptions that hem us in.
Today, we all-too-often conflate the words Morals and Ethics. Morals are the values we hold in our hearts as we engage with the world. Ethics, meanwhile, are the social rules we put into place in order to actualize our morals. In much the same way, the book of Genesis, and Parashat Vayechi, helps us to identify the morals that we are going to carry with us into our Jewish identities. What comes next are the laws and ethics that help to put those ideas into action, taking our raw intention for good and focusing it into the ways we govern ourselves and those around us.
Chazak, Chazak V’nitchazaik. In strength, in strength, may we all be strengthened by what we learn from our ancient tradition.