Saturday, December 15, 2007

Parshat Vayechi 1

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.

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