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by Yogi Robkin    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Realizing that his father was about to die, Joseph drew his two sons, Efraim and Menashe, to Jacob’s deathbed to be blessed while there was still time.



Realizing that his father was about to die, Joseph drew his two sons, Efraim and Menashe, to Jacob’s deathbed to be blessed while there was still time. Clearly foreshadowing the fact that Jacob was soon to grant Ephraim and Menashe their own inheritances in the land of Israel along with the brothers of Joseph, Jacob sits up in his bed and speaks of the promise that G-d had made with him, that his offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Israel.

Then, just when it seemed appropriate to bless his grandchildren, Jacob begins to discuss the death of his beloved wife Rachel, and where she was buried. What is the purpose of this latter discussion?

Finally, Jacob poises himself to bless Ephraim and Menashe, and places his hands upon their heads, but, instead of blessing his grandchildren, Jacob proceeds to bless their father, Joseph. What is going on?

After this delay, Ephraim and Menashe are finally blessed by Jacob, and informed that their destinies lie not with the rest of Jacob’s grandchildren, but with the sons of Jacob himself who merit to have their own inheritances in the land of Israel. Why were Ephraim and Menashe specifically chosen for this special destiny?

The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson and the author of his own classic commentary on the Torah, explains that since Jacob was promised the land of Israel, it was within his rights to grant whomever he wished the firstborn rights to two portions of inheritance.

Based on this explanation, it is clear why Jacob placed his hands on Ephraim and Menashe, and proceeded in blessing their father, Joseph. As the Rashbam himself later clarifies, Jacob blessed his grandchildren by blessing their father.

What the Rashbam is saying is that, in order to bless Ephraim and Menashe with their own inheritances, Jacob had to first bless Joseph with the firstborn rights which come with two portions of land. Why though did Jacob give the firstborn rights to Joseph and not to Reuben, the biological firstborn?

The Chizkuni, a 13th century Torah commentator, explains that, Joseph, out of all of his brothers, was given a double inheritance because he was the firstborn of Jacob’s main wife, Rachel. (Jacob only worked for Laban for Rachel’s hand in marraige.) Based on this understanding we can gather an insight into the reason why the death of Rachel is mentioned in the middle of this episode.

Before blessing Joseph with the firstborn rights, Jacob informs Joseph of his intention to bless him; Jacob reveals that Ephraim and Menashe will receive their own portions of land, and Joseph realized that this was only possible if he was given the firstborn rights.

Clear to Joseph that he was only given these rights as a result of his being the firstborn of Rachel, Jacob’s main wife, Joseph was subsequently disturbed. "If my mother was Jacob’s main wife, why was Leah, unlike my mother, buried in the Cave of Machpelah, with the other patriarchs and matriarchs?" Jacob, realizing that Joseph would be disturbed with this question, beat Joseph to the point, and explained that since Rachel died on the way to the land of Israel, she was buried there on the road, and not in the Cave of Machpelah.

On another level, it is possible to suggest that Joseph was given the firstborn rights because of who Joseph the individual was. Joseph is actually the Jacob of the next generation.

The Midrash on the verse, "These are the offspring of Jacob: Joseph...." (Genesis 37:2), comments that Joseph alone was called the offspring of Jacob. The Midrash explains that this is so for several reasons. Firstly, because Jacob’s sole purpose in working for Laban was for Rachel, Joseph’s mother. Secondly, because Joseph’s physical appearance resembled Jacob. Furthermore, because everything that happened to Jacob happened to Joseph as well: Jacob was hated, and Joseph was hated; Jacob’s brother sought to kill him, and Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him.

As evident from this Midrash, Jacob’s special relationship with Joseph existed because these two spiritual giants were essentially one and the same person. This being the case, if Jacob was one of the forefathers, Joseph too was a quasi father; making Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menashe, quasi tribes, and deserving of their own inheritances. In fact, later in the Torah portion, Joseph is described as the shepherd of the "evan—stone" of Israel (ibid. 49:24).

Rashi, the preeminent commentator on the Torah, explains that the Hebrew word "evan" is an abbreviated form of "av ve’ben—father and son." Joseph is connected to both the destiny of the forefathers and the sons. In fact, Joseph serves as the bridge between the two. It is no coincidence then that the death of Joseph is mentioned at the end of Genesis, the Biblical book dealing almost exclusively with the happenings of the forefathers, and mentioned once again in the book of Exodus, the Biblical book involved with the dealings of the sons—the twelve tribes.

The job of the Jew is to search deep inside of himself and discern where his destiny lies. Is he to be the father, acting as the leader and guide, or is he to be the passive son, acting as a receiver of wisdom, and following in the ways previously paved for him, or is he to be a little of both? Success in life comes with finding and accepting one’s true destiny, and playing out that destiny as best as one can.


This article was based on a lecture delivered by Rabbi Isaacson of Yeshiva Mevasserret Tzion, which was based on a shiur of his wife Rebbetzin Isaacson of Michlelet Mevasseret Yerushalayim.

Yogi Robkin, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

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