Father and Son, Living in the Present & Living in the Past

It’s the same story of favoritism, isn’t it?

The same story of a younger child being favored over an older child.

This time it happened when Yaakov blessed his grandchildren. When doing that, Yakov placed his right hand - the favored hand – on the younger child’s head.

That placement, the possuk tells us, was “bad in Yosef’s eyes.”[1] So much so that Yosef tried redirecting his father’s right hand onto his older child’s head.

Yaakov, though, the possuk tells “objected”[2] to what his son wanted to do.

You read this story and you ask yourself: Hadn’t Yaakov done this, once before, when he favored Yosef, a younger son, with a special garment?

That made the brothers resent Yosef. So much so, that they threw him into a pit. And caused his sale into slavery.

Why, then, is Yaakov doing the same thing again? Why is he, once again, favoring a younger son over an older son?

To answer this question, let’s step back in history.

Let’s recall that Yaakov, even as a boy, was called a “wholesome person.”[3] That identifies him as an exceptionally spiritual person. Let’s also recall that Yaakov’s older brother, Esav, was called “a man of the field.”[4] That identifies him as an earthy, temporal person who wasn’t given to spirituality.[5]

Yaakov, then, was more suited for spiritual leadership than Esav. Yaakov should, therefore, have been given the tools that allow for such leadership. And that should have included his father’s powerful end-of-life blessing.

Yitzchok though, at least initially, wasn’t going to afford Yaakov that blessing. He was, rather, going to afford it to Esav. And he was going to do that, as the following possuk notes, because Esav was his older son.

“Yitzchok called to Esav, his elder son and he said …let me bless you before I die.”[6]

Yaakov is calling “Esav his older son”[7]seemingly because he’s “older.” Why his Esav’s status as “older,” a factor here? It’s probably because Yitzchok was following protocol. And protocol granted rights and leadership to an elder son – even when a younger brother is more qualified.

Yes, Yaakov received the blessing in the end.

That, though, was only because he stole it.[8]

And that theft caused him so much heartache.

It caused Esav – who felt cheated by that theft – to hate Yaakov and to drive him into exile for 22 years. And there was so much bad during that exile.

Yes, there was history. And that history may have made Yaakov think: Imagine if Yitzchok wouldn’t have followed the eldest-child protocol. Then the blessing would have been given to me, the more deserving son. Then I wouldn’t have had to “steal.” And then Esav wouldn’t have hated me.

And to also think: Imagine if the eldest child protocol would have been followed all the way through. Then Esav would have been blessed. Wouldn’t that have been a waste? Wouldn’t that have stymied the Jewish destiny?

Those were weighty thoughts. So weighty that they may have prompted Yaakov to abandon the eldest-child protocol. And to, instead, grant leadership to the most qualified child. That most qualified child was, of course, Yosef, the ”child of wisdom.”[9]

That appointment departed from that period’s social norms. And it departed from parental example. Which is why Yaakov bolstered that appointment by giving Yosef a leader’s special garment.[10]

Yosef’s appointment – especially because that special garment made his appointment unambiguous – was meant to facilitate so much good.

To empower Yosef with strong leadership. To empower the entire family with the benefits that came with Yosef’s exceptional leadership.

But it didn’t end up happening that way. Yosef’s siblings didn’t initially accept his appointment. And Yosef suffered terribly because of that.

There was envy. There was being thrown into him into a pit. And there was being sold into slavery. And there was so much else.

That’s why Yosef returned to the eldest child protocol with own children. That’s why he favored his eldest son, even though that child, Menashe, wasn’t his most exceptional child.

That’s why – as noted before – Yosef objected when Yaakov favored Yosef’s younger son, Efraim. Yosef worried that his favoring of Efraim would create envy – just the way Yaakov’s favoring of Yosef created envy.

Yaakov and Yosef, then, when standing in front of Efraim and Menashe, weren’t just living in the present. They were also living in the past. They were remembering past pain. And they were trying to spare their children and grandchildren that pain.

And that explains the emotional gravitas that underlies the following Midrashim.

One Midrash has Yaakov forcefully keeping his right hand on Efraim’s head and telling Yosef: “I swear that a hundred like you won’t dislodge my hands.”[11] Another Midrash sees Yaakov saying: “My hands grabbed an angel, and you want to push them aside?”[12] While yet another Midrash sees Yaakov saying: “You think I don’t know that your brothers sold you into slavery?… I know, but I will still favor Efraim.”[13]

Are these Midrashim factual renditions of what Yaakov actually said to Yosef? Are they poetic portrayals of the feelings that must have permeated that charged moment in time?

Whatever these Midrashim are - fact or metaphor – they elucidate how the past seeps into Yaakov’s and Yosef’s presents.

They explain why Yaakov and Yosef – and everyone else too - viewed similar situations from different vantage points.

Why to some people, a certain situation is a blessing. While to others it’s a curse.

Why to some people, a certain challenge is minor. While to others, it’s insurmountable.

Yes, our different pasts create different vantage points on – even on shared presents.

Let’s remember that.

It’ll help us when we’re next taken aback by someone exclaiming: “A hundred like you won’t dislodge my hands.”[14]

[1] Bereishis 48:17

[2] Bereishis 48:19

[3] Bereishis 25:27

[4] loc. cit.

[5] Rashi, ad. loc.

[6]  Bereishis 27:1-4

[7] As per Bereishis Rabba 67

[8] That theft caused Yitzchok to introspect. About how – well before this incident – Esav had sold the blessings to Yakov, see Radak Bereishis 25:31-34 25:31 and Rashi Bereishis 27:36. And on Esav’s poor character, see Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on Chapter 25. Which is why Yitzchok shifted those blessings to Yaakov.

[9] Bereishis 37:3 as per Bereishis Rabba 84

[10] Sforno, Bereishis 37:3

[11] Seder Eliyahu Rabba

[12] Bereishis Rabba 97

[13] Pesikta Rabbasi 3

[14] Seder Eliyahu Rabba

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