Blessings From a Deathbed

Vayehi By :  Charles Savenor Posted On Nov 22, 2007 / 5768 | Torah Commentary

Laying on his deathbed, Jacob beckons for his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh. He wants to bless the sons of his beloved Joseph even before his own children, affirming the covenant of Abraham with the next generation.

Joseph brings in his sons and places them in their birth order to receive their blessings. Creating a scene reenacted every Shabbat, Jacob places his hands on these boys and commences his words of prayer.

The Torah reads: “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” (Etz Hayim, Gen. 48:14).

Joseph urgently points out that Jacob has seemingly misplaced his hands by laying his right hand, the prominent hand, on the younger son. Joseph’s correction echoes Laban’s words to Jacob when he sought to marry Rachel before her older sister, Leah. Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (Etz Hayim, Gen. 29:26). Similarly, common practice dictates that the oldest son receives the first, and perhaps the best, blessing.

One might speculate that Jacob’s actions are related to his failing eyesight. We recall that this was one reason that Jacob himself was able to acquire the birthright blessing from Isaac. However, it would be myopic to understand this awkward moment tied to bad eyesight, when Jacob says: “I know, my son, I know. He [Manasseh] too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations” (Etz Hayim, Gen. 48:19). The Midrash relates that Jacob’s actions are connected to a sudden prophetic encounter foreseeing the greater actions of Ephraim’s descendents than Manasseh’s.

This exchange between Jacob and Joseph is more than a family struggle about authority. Repeated words, even letters, in the Torah inform us that more is taking place within our sacred text than meets the eye. In the aforementioned verse, when setting Joseph straight, Jacob says: “Yadati beni yadati,” which translates as “I know, my son, I know.” From the rest of the verse we comprehend this dying patriarch is explicitly aware of his action and the players around him. Yet he could have communicated this without saying “I know” twice.

This seemingly unnecessary repetition begs the question: why did Jacob say “yadati” twice? Furthermore, since yadati means “I know,” what does Jacob know that he wants to share with his family?

In our physical, mortal world, natural laws—physics, time, and even family birth orders—matter. In the ancient world, and even in many cultures today, birth order determines one’s familial and societal rights and obligations. Similarly, in Judaism the bachor (the first born) occupies an esteemed position. When the Temple stood, first-born fruits and animals were considered the best sacrifices. Moreover, before the installation of the tribe of Levi as the caretakers of the Tabernacle, the firstborns had been originally intended to serve in this role.

By blessing the younger child first, Jacob teaches future generations a valuable lesson. On one level, Jacob imparts that one’s actions and character matter more than birth order in achieving success and determining one’s blessings in life. Not even their being blessed first guarantees their future success, for this episode is not limited to striving for a meritocracy.

Jacob’s first yadati (I know) refers to his firsthand knowledge and experience that life does not always unfold along a linear trajectory. As the psalmist proclaims, God’s greatness is ein heker, beyond our comprehension (Psalm 145). We see this pattern evidenced repeatedly in Genesis. Abraham, the youngest of three, receives the call from God. Isaac inherits the birthright over his older half brother, Ishmael. Jacob himself receives the birthright over his older twin brother, Esau. And Joseph, the son of the second wife, Rachel, is at the helm of the family, literally lording over his brothers, including Reuven, Jacob’s oldest son.

When dealing with faith and the covenant with the children of Abraham, human birth order and the normal rules of nature are not applicable. In other words, one’s birthright is not determined by one’s birth order. This represents the fundamental message of the entire Torah on familial and national levels.

That Jacob utters “yadati” twice also signals to his descendants that the covenant of Abraham has entered a new phase. Earlier in Genesis, we find Abram—childless at that time—being addressed by God: “And He said to him, ‘Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years’” (Etz Hayim, Gen. 15:13). It is important to note that the expression “know well” actually appears as two words, “yado’a tayda, in the Hebrew text. In both this verse and the one in Parshat Va-y’hi,the Hebrew word for “know” appears twice when once would have sufficed.

The second yadati serves as a segue into the next chapter for the burgeoning Israelite nation. What Jacob knows is that the path ahead will be filled with hardship, slavery, and affliction, but salvation lies beyond that. Who could ever imagine that a slave people could leave, let alone be liberated from, their masters, the world’s superpower of the era? Yet the covenant of Abraham does not operate by the ordinary rules of political science.

In his 1898 essay “Concerning the Jews,” Mark Twain affirms this observation:

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then . . . passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts . . . All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Two thousand years after Jacob’s deathbed scene, Twain marvels at the unfathomable sustained presence of the Jewish people, despite our tragedies and travails. Fifty years later, with the founding of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion provides an answer to Twain’s query: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”

Every Friday night, as Jewish parents reenact this ancient scene by embracing and blessing their children, they communicate that our deeds will shape the blessings we receive. Equally important, they share our patriarch Jacob’s knowledge that the covenant of Abraham means that the unexpected can happen at any time and bring salvation to our people and the whole world.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.