The Archetype of the Firstborn

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 2, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

As the book of Genesis daws to a close, it circles back to the beginning. The displacement of the firstborn, the theme which has dominated the narrative throughout, is reiterated one last time. And this final reiteration is as arbitrary as the first. At the dawn of human history, it was the sacrifice of Abel, the younger son of Adam and Eve, that found favor in God’s eyes and not that of Cain, even though Cain was the first to turn to God in a spirit of thanksgiving (Genesis 4:3-4). Divine rejection quickly led to human aggression. The episode foreshadows the pervasive preference for the younger brother which becomes the connective tissue of all the patriarchal stories.

Likewise, on this deathbed Jacob bestows an extra measure of blessing on Joseph’s younger son Ephraim. Consciously, and over Joseph’s protests, Jacob lays has right hand on the younger brother and his left on Manasseh. The narrative tarries on the details because it deems them worth preserving, and not without a note of irony.

Joseph had surely been the beneficiary (and victim) of his father’s repudiation of the ancient right of primogeniture. Nevertheless, he submits to its rule in the case of his own sons. He carefully places them before his feeble father in order of their birth, Manasseh opposite Jacob’s right hand, Ephraim opposite his left. When Jacob, although nearly blind, chooses to ignore that choreography by crossing his hands, Joseph objects that the right hand should go on the head of Manasseh, the firstborn. Barely able to sit aright in his bed, Jacob persists with a sudden flash of vigor: “I know, my son, I know. He 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 nation’s (Genesis 48:19).”

There is more to Joseph’s resistance to his father, I believe, than compliance with custom. The order of his sons is a clue to the recovery of his own well-being. Their names suggest the manner in which he overcame the traumas he had suffered at the hands of his brothers and in Egypt. Faced with the greatest challenge of his life, to preside over the economy of Egypt, he needed to eradicate from his mind the paralyzing memories of the past. This is what the domesticity provided by his wife “Asenath daughter of Poti-phera priest of On” helped him achieve (Genesis 41:45). With great poignancy, he named his firstborn son “Manasseh, meaning ‘God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home (Genesis 41:52).'” Release and productivity followed repression, attended by the joyful name Joseph accorded his second son. “Ephraim, meaning ‘God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction (Genesis 41:52).'” Thus for Jacob to reverse their order arbitrarily while adopting and blessing them on his deathbed was to do violence to what each meant in the life of their father. We are offered no evidence, as we are in the case of Reuben, as to what warranted Manasseh’s displacement. In short, this final episode confirms just how central in the devaluing of the firstborn to the book of Genesis. It is a motif that colors even the most marginal of events like the birth of Perez the Tamar. Fathered inadvertently by Judah, Perez is a twin whose brother had begun to exit from his mother’s womb first when upstaged by Perez. “What a breath you have made for yourself, “exclaimed to midwife (Genesis 38:29), and Judah called him Perez meaning “breath.” Ten generations later, King David would issue from Perez’s descendants, yielding yet another striking incident of Genesis’s pervasive favoritism for the younger son (Ruth 4:18-22).

At the heart of this preference is God’s freedom to choose. The rejection of a preordained hierarchical order like primogeniture approximates a more level playing field. Abraham and his clan have no claim on God’s favor other than merit. They are neither the oldest nor the most powerful of clans. They are singled out because they have a moral sensibility which graces them with the promise to envision a more just and compassionate way to conduct human affairs. Though latecomers, Israel in to become God’s firstborn on moral grounds (Exodus 4:22) to displace those who preceded them chronologically in order to establish a new beacon of virtue for humanity. What happens in Abraham’s family mirrors the divine economy. Like the patriarchs, God is not confined by the happenstance of birth.

It is true that the other books of Moses treat the status of the first male child less cavalierly. According to Exodus and Numbers, he belongs to God, as do the first fruits of one’s field or flock or herd, and must be redeemed (Exodus 13:1, 22:28, 34:20; Numbers 18:12-18). For a brief time before the calamity of the Golden Calf, all firstborn sons were consecrated to serve in the Tabernacle (Numbers 8:16-19). And Deuteronomy (21:15-17) stipulates that the firstborn son was to receive double the inheritance of his male siblings. But with the eventual loss of political sovereignty and the destruction of the Temple, what remained prominent and widely practiced was the redemption of the first born male of a Jewish mother on the thirty-first day after birth, if neither of his parents were a Kohen or Levi.

Yet it is the more equitable spirit of Genesis which came to prevail in Judaism. Each Friday evening at the Sabbath meal, parents bless their children in the ancient words of Jacob (Genesis 48:20). When they say to their boys, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” and to their girls “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” they pay tribute to the conviction that in the grand scale of things the order of child’s birth is of no consequence. The worthiness of a human being is not predetermined, but the end result of unceasing individual effort.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-y’hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.