Parashat Vayechi

Friday, December 17, 2021/13 Tevet, 5782
Parashat Vayechi Genesis 47:28–50:26

Dear Friends,

As Jacob reaches the end of his life in this week’s Torah portion, he gathers his sons around him. Recalling how his father Isaac offered blessings on his deathbed, Jacob feels inspired to do the same. Rather than offer a prayer only to the firstborn son, Jacob decides to provide a message to each of his sons, with one exception. Instead of blessing Joseph, he blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Isaiah Horowitz explains that Jacob blesses Joseph through his sons because “there is no greater blessing for a father than the wish that his children should take after him ad become good people.”

A delighted Joseph gathers his boys, placing his eldest, Menasseh, on Jacob’s right and Ephraim on his left. It was customary for the older son to receive a mark of extra respect by being blessed with Jacob’s dominant hand. As Jacob prepared to bless them, he did something Joseph found quite peculiar. Jacob stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, even though he was the younger of the two. When Joseph saw this, he immediately intervened. He took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head, assuming Jacob had made an error. “Not that way, father,” he said. “This is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” (Genesis 48:18) The Torah explains that at the end of his life, Jacob’s eyes “were heavy with age” and “he couldn’t see.” (Genesis 48:10) Joseph may have believed that Jacob’s vision had deceived him, and he mistook one grandson for another. Joseph was wrong.

Jacob immediately spoke up, saying, “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…” Jacob had made no error. His eyes might be cloudy and his vision poor, but his mind was very much intact. He knew his grandsons, and his decisions were purposeful.

Throughout the book of Genesis, there is an ongoing theme of the younger son taking precedence over the firstborn. Isaac is favored over Ishmael, Rachel over Leah, and Jacob over his brother Esau. As Laura Geller explains, in blessing Ephraim with his right hand and Manasseh with his left, Jacob was “repairing his own history, doing intentionally what Isaac did by accident.” Perhaps in blessing the children in this order, Jacob was “asserting through his act of blessing that birth no longer determines one’s destiny and that blessing is an act of will as opposed to an accident of chance.” At the end of Jacob’s life, he continues to impart wisdom and better our world.

Joseph missed the intention of his father. He looked at Jacob and saw a man who was no longer strong and of clear vision. He made an error too often repeated. He assumed that Jacob’s age or poor vision was indicative of a less capable mind. We have perhaps all witnessed people being talked over simply because they are in a wheelchair or made to feel invisible because of age, class, or physical differences. Joseph loves his father, and yet at this moment, he fails to see him for the complete human being he is. If Joseph, the visionary, can make this mistake, how easy it can be for us to fall into the same trap!

Perhaps that is why this Torah portion is called Vayechi, “and he lived.” Jacob continues to live on in all he taught us. In his honor, let us all strive to look into the face of the person before us and see not age or class or color or physical differences, but a sacred human being deserving of honor and respect.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail