Parshat Vayechi (2012)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
Let’s Overcome Ego During This Holiday Season
As I sit here in the darkness of Nittel Nacht (Yiddish for: “Birth Night”) – during the deadness of the night of Christmas eve – like many Jews I am sitting here trying to avoid mingling too much with the outside world. Not that I don’t find something charming about the common culture celebrating their holiday, but during all the chaos and revelry many of us choose to stay out of the way. There is very little to do to begin with, and yet we find ourselves with even less to do, most Jews purposely staying home seemingly in the trenches and out of the firing lines of a stressful holiday season. This custom comes from Jewish prudence to avoid the merrymakers and falling victim to the once common custom of people to get drunk on the holiday and for zealous reasons beat the occasional Jew they see in their path.
Instead most of us are indoors, saying our nighttime prayers, paying careful attention to every line about protection. Among the phrases included in the soothing lines of the Kriyat Shema al haMitah – the Bedtime Shema – we find the following line quoted from this weeks parsha:
“May the angel who redeems
me from all evil
bless the lads,
and may my name
be declared upon them,
and the names of my forefathers
Abraham and Isaac,
and may they proliferate abundantly
like fish within the land.”
|| Hamal’ach hago’el
| oti mikol-ra
| veyikare vahem shemi
| veshem avotai
| Avraham veYitzchak
| veyidgu larov
| bekerev ha’aretz
Though it is beautiful in form, many rightfully wonder what the meaning of this verse is. Here we are repeating a blessing said for Ephraim and Menasheh. In the Jewish tradition when one blesses their children, and most often specifically their sons, we bless them that G-d would make them like Ephraim and Menasheh. As prescribed by the Torah we are told when Israel blesses we should bless in this way and with these words. (see Genesis 48:20) At night, upon our beds, we ask that the G-d who will surely protect us should also do so for our young; and that our children who bare our goodly names should also receive the merit of our patriarchs. We then ask that He makes us multiply like fish within the land.
It’s a curious verse because we are forced to ask, what do fish have to do with “the land?”
Actually, as our sages teach us, fish logically have very little to do with the land. And that is the point, they are concealed in the water, not really even visible upon land. Rashi declares, in step with Targum Onkelos and Midrash Rabba (Bereishit Rabba 97:3), that fish are unaffected by the “ayin hara / evil eye.” The mystical interpret this to mean that the evil eye, like spirits, are unable to cross water; it’s better to be like fish in the water. Though the more rational among us take the evil eye at face value according to our tradition, that ayin hara is nothing more than a projection of jealousy and envy. Like fish who are concealed under the water, so too we should have our way go unnoticed by the people of the land, going about one’s business and multiplying without much notice from the cruel animalistic world above the waters. Out of sight we avoid being caught in a snare, instead its better to multiply like the fish in the deep.
The Blessings of The Tribes
In this weeks parsha we encounter the blessings of the Tribes of Israel. Yaakov Avinu – Jacob our Father, also named Israel – blesses his sons. Likewise he also blesses the sons of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the Just. This is one of two places in the Torah a righteous man blesses the Israelite clans; once we encounter such a deathbed blessing being given by Yaakov here in this weeks Torah portion, and later on again another blessing of the tribes is given by Mosheh Rabbeinu – Moses our Teacher (see Deuteronomy chapter 33).
Though upon inspection we see that both sets of blessings cannot be identically delineated if we try to compare and contrast them. Not everyone is necessarily blessed here. Even more curiously we see here that blessings are unequally given to certain clans. Yosef and his sons take the cake when it comes to blessings.
In his blessing Yaakov Avinu asks G-d to bless the “lads,” meaning more than one young man. So who is he speaking of? This first tier of blessing is for two young men, Ephraim and Menasheh; the sons of Yosef haTzadik.
The Torah tells us that Yaakov, their grandfather, adopted them as sons with full rights of inheritance. (see Gensis 48:5) Reuvien and Levi, the sons of Yaakov, were stripped of their rights of inheritance and Shimon lowered in status below that of even his youngest brother when he blesses. Aside from their involvement in the selling Yosef as a slave, they also participated in callused acts against others (as in the instance of the slaughter of Shechem). Yaakov says of them, “Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.” Consequently Ephraim and Menasheh were elevated to the status of first-born son, giving them the role of leadership and granting them an inheritance; an honor they would both share. Their mazal was uniquely tied together; they were destined to work in co-operation with each other.
Even Moses’ blessings are lopsided, going on to declare that Yosef will be honored through Ephraim and Menasheh, and that Yosef’s name will be as synonymous with honor as strength is to the ox. He states, “with them shall he gore nations together, to the ends of the Land; they are the myriads of Ephraim, and the thousands of Menasheh.” (see Deuteronomy 33:13-17) For this reason the blessings for these two sons of Yosef are included here with the sons of Israel.
Menasheh: What happens when it seems that you’re under-appreciated?
The story of Ephraim and Menasheh’s inheritance has all the elements of a modern drama. The stories of the Torah are about real people, with real lives and emotions. Human emotions get messy when people feel they are under-appreciated or seem to be arbitrarily overlooked. It’s very likely that Menasheh understood this sentiment profoundly.
During the act of Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menasheh, his grandsons who he chose to adopt as his own, Yaakov declared that them and their descendents were appointed as princes over the tribes of Israel. It is not merely because of Yaakov’s disfavor in the cruel sons he set aside that they received this right. To their credit Ephraim and Menasheh were ideal for leadership as they had been educated well in Egypt, where they were exposed to diplomacy in the house of their father Yosef who was Pharaoh’s chief adviser.
When Yosef goes before Yaakov with his sons, as Yaakov begins to bless them Yosef stops him abruptly. Yaakov had placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim, extending the honor due to the firstborn to the younger of the two sons. When approaching Yaakov we are told that Yosef had Menasheh at his right hand side for the honor due to the firstborn and Ephraim to his left. Yosef believed that Yaakov had mistakenly placed his preferred hand on the wrong son, as from his seated position on his deathbed and facing them Ephraim was now on Yaakov’s right hand side and Menasheh on his left. Yosef attempts to inform his father that Menasheh is the oldest and reverse his hand placement. Instead we learn he crossed over his hands yet again. Yaakov then responds that he was fully aware and was not mistaken, that is was destined that the older should serve the younger. (see verse 19)
The pattern of the younger being chosen is a pattern we see many times in the Torah. Hashem often seems to favor the least likely candidate when we compare His leaders against their contenders. Though Menasheh had every right to be chosen for the blessing of the first born, he was seemingly snubbed by his grandfather. He was the older of the two sons, he had more years under his belt observing the way his father ruled; he was the most qualified. In similar situations brothers found themselves becoming mortal enemies over “unfair” blessings. In fact Yaakov Avinu himself was the younger son, who through a cunning trick received the blessing of the first born in place of his brother Eisav. Yaakov was the underdog, Eisav was the robust son that was also seemingly most qualified to take the lead.
We don’t know how Menasheh reacted. Though the Torah tells us that Yosef pressed the issue to the point that Yaakov is said to have “vayeman / refused” to amend his blessing. However there is no mention of protest from Menasheh.
When we consider it, it wasn’t appropriate for him to be upset. The inheritance he was receiving was an act of chesed (kindness), he was being given something as a gift and not due to his own merit. In reality, not either one of them deserved any favors anyhow. In fact it would have also been presumptuous for him to think that he was being cheated, because both Ephraim and Menasheh were each given as equal portion of land and inheritance as the actual sons of Yaakov Avinu, his own rightful sons.
The role of leadership was to be shared by the two brothers, an arrangement that was still honored in the days of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, as the nation of Israel during the Exodus was governed by a descendent of Menasheh. To connect to the consciousness of Menasheh is to not give in to jealousy or despair when someone else succeeds, and understand that when someone else is recognized that it is their fifteen-minutes of fame. Your turn to share the spotlight will come too.
But who is this angel mentioned here?
Yaakov Avinu asks that the angel who “redeems me from all evil bless the lads.” There is only one time that we see Yaakov having a personal, one-on-one interaction with an angel, or a spiritual being if you will. This occurs in the story of Yaakov wresting with an angel in Genesis chapter 32. However the text does not initially identify the person wrestling with Yaakov as being an angel. It generally refers to him as merely a person using the phrase “איש עמו / a man with him.” Midrash Rabbah (Bereishit Rabba 77:3) tell us that this angel in the form of a man, whom he is wresting with, is “שרו של עשו” meaning Eisav’s, his older brother’s, protective angel which we can think of as an almost an astral-projection of Eisav’s ego. The Baal Ha-Turim agrees, stating that “איש עמו” or a man with him, has the numeric value of 427 which is equal to that of the names עשו עדום, meaning Eisav and Edom.
From this perspective, in this remarkable story, we see Yaakov Avinu fighting with the ego of his brother. They had been battling their entire lives, even from before the time of birth they were wrestling with each other in their mother’s womb for the position of honor.
In life Yaakov was the small, quiet and seemingly passive son. It was Eisav who was the robust, manly and assertive type. Yaakov had to always seemingly struggling to validate himself from under the shadow of Eisav. Here Yaakov was determined to wrestle with this issue once and for all, thus he demanded that his opponent submit and bless him. He wrestled with the angel until daybreak, and when it was apparent Yaakov would not give in his opponent submitted and blessed him.
When the angel begins to bless Yaakov he asks him, “What is your name?” When Yaakov responded the angel replied to him, “No longer will it be said that your names is Yaakov, but Yisrael (Israel), for you have wrestled with the Divine and with man and have overcome.” (see Genesis 32:26)
Yaakov and Eisav often appear to be more as two-halves of the same coin instead of twins. Yaakov being easily characterized by a “left brained,” intuitive, mild and sensible side of a soul that had been separated. Eisav, the strong, dominant, aggressive side. In this act we see Yaakov really struggling more with himself than anyone else, to no longer be the usurper and trickster. It this powerful encounter it was as though he had “seen the face of G-d.” The commentary of Talmud Chullin 91a by the Tosafot tells us that this struggle raised the dust to the Throne of Heaven, meaning he shook things up until even G-d had to acknowledge his struggle. The Baal HaTurim also tells us the words ויאבק, meaning a man wrested, it has the same numeric value as the phrase כסא הכבוד, the Throne of Glory. Yaakov was always a devout follower and student of the Torah, or Divine Teaching, taught by his grandfather Avraham Avinu, Abraham our Father. However he only became really truly in touch with the glory of G-d when he overcame egoism.
Therefore the angel changed his name to Yisrael. Yes, the name Yaakov means to be a “trickster.” It was true that Yaakov Avinu had to finagle and be a cunning man in order establish himself. However, when he lost his attachment to ego he also released himself from the stigma of that name and way of life. Now without attachment he was recognized as a truly great man, one who “struggled with man and G-d and prevailed!”
When we include the line of blessing from this week’s parsha during our nighttime prayers on Nittel Nacht we should hope that like in the life of Yaakov Avinu, G-d would settle and calm the tensions with those who disagree with our apparently unique, honored and chosen status.
Yaakov Avinu says, “and may my name be declared upon them.”
The blessing is said in the name of the patriarchs, this shows us the influence a spirit of blessing has for developing family, a sense of heritage, and the respect for culture and tradition.
It could also be that Yaakov Avinu, who knew the history of rivalry between brothers and the often violent tragedies that followed, wished that his descendants be spared this. In this blessing he seems to be telling G-d, “I have already gone through this, and so have my forefathers. Do not let Ephraim and Menasheh suffer the same misfortune. Grant them the knowledge and karmic retribution that allows them to overcome the urge to become rivals.”
- Parshat Vayishlach (2011)
- Parshat Chukat (2011)
- Parshat Shemot (2012)
- Download the “Bedtime Shema” prayers at The Open Siddur Project