Table Talk: Vayechi
Debating the Future
Jacob was bidding farewell to Joseph and honoring the son’s remarkable accomplishments, but Jacob was still the father and patriarch.
Joseph placed his older son Menashe on Jacob’s right and Ephraim, the younger of the two, on Jacob’s left. Jacob crossed his hands when he blessed the two boys, and through them their father. Joseph attempted to correct his father and pointed out that Menashe was the first born, but Jacob knew exactly what he was doing? Many understand this short debate as Joseph assuming that his father, who had lost much of his vision in his old age, had made a simple mistake. Is it really possible that at the moment when Jacob was asserting his full rights and power as father and patriarch would make such an error? Joseph surely appreciated the momentous transfer of the Double Portion of the First Born from Reuben to him. Would not the transfer be tainted if Jacob could make such a terrible mistake? Perhaps there was a deeper meaning to this argument, and Jacob and Joseph were actually debating the relative value of two different approaches to the service of God. (Darchei Noam, 5762-64)
I would like to offer three possibilities, all based on the names of Josephs two sons:
(Genesis 41:50-52): “Now to Joseph were born two sons…Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh for ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.’ And the name of the second son he called Ephraim for, ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
First Approach: Based on the Darchei Noam 5762:
Manasseh represents the person who has forgotten, or let go, of all his internal battles, and is completely focused on his spiritual life. Ephraim, on the other hand, still lives in “the land of suffering”, he must still wage internal battles to develop his relationship with God. Joseph favored the first approach, Jacob, the latter. Why? How did their respective approaches reflect their struggles and achievements?
Second Approach: Based on Darchei Noam 5763:
Manasseh’s name represents the person who feels forgotten by God, a person who struggles on his own, rises to great heights only to find he must struggle again. However, he possesses the power to continue his battles even if he is alone and forgotten. Menashe ignores his struggles and focuses on attaching to God, no matter his circumstances. Ephraim experiences all the blessings of life, and lives with a deep awareness of God’s providence. He passionately loves God and strives to constantly fortify that love. Joseph favored the first approach, Jacob, the latter. Why? How did their respective approaches reflect their struggles and achievements?
Third Approach: Based on Darchei Noam 5764 and Degel Machane Ephraim; “Gather and hear”.
There are two approaches to sanctity, represented by Jacob and Joseph, and Manasseh and Ephraim. There is Joseph, who as Manasseh, lapses in his great passion for life, forgets his values and family, falls into sin and eventually raises himself in the final moments of a test. There is Jacob who has calmed his passions and has an iron grip on his desires, and is therefore less likely to fall into sin. Jacob and Joseph are arguing the merits of the two approaches. Which path do you believe is more appropriate for a leader in our generation?
Jacob’s Relationship With Rachel
We normally understand that the reason Jacob raised the issue of Rachel’s burial to Joseph was to assuage any potential resentment on the son’s part that his mother was not buried in The Cave of Machpeila, exactly where Jacob was asking Joseph to bury him. Is it possible that there was another, deeper reason to mention Rachel? Her burial in Bethlehem was not the only outstanding issue between Jacob and the love of his life. Rachel died as a result of Jacob’s statement to Laban that whoever stole Laban’s idols should die. Jacob immediately understood what happened when Rachel suddenly died. Jacob, for what he considered good reason, was rather harsh when Rachel voiced her preference to die rather than to continue to live as a childless woman. His reasons were sound, but does that matter if the effect of his words was so devastating? Why would Jacob use this conversation with Joseph to repair the mistakes in his relationship with Rachel?
Blessing As The Theme of Genesis
Blessings lie at the core of so many of the stories of Genesis; Noah and his sons. God granted Abraham the power to bless. We read of Isaac’s desire to bless Esau, but actually granting the “blessing of Abraham” to Jacob. And in this week’s portion, the closing of Genesis, we learn of the special blessing for Joseph and then of Jacob blessing all his sons before his death. Why is the concept of blessing so fundamental to Genesis? Can you find other examples in the Creation story? Where else in the Torah do we find blessings playing such a major role? Is this related to our use of blessings to form the Shmone Esrei, so named for the number of its blessings?