By Bettijane Eisenpreis
When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it was wrong, so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. “Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born…”
At the end of his life, Jacob asks Joseph to bring his two sons to see their grandfather so that he can bless them. Joseph seems more than willing to do so, but when Jacob starts to bless the younger son, Ephraim, before the older one, Manasseh, Joseph gets upset and tries to reverse the process. He seems to think the old man is losing it or doesn’t know which boy is which. It wouldn’t be surprising – Jacob and Joseph have been out of touch for years and Grandpa barely knows the boys. But it turns out that Jacob knows exactly what he is doing and does it over Joseph’s objections.
That Jacob wants to give the younger boy the better blessing shouldn’t surprise Joseph. He must know that his father stole the birthright and the blessing from Esau, Jacob’s older twin brother. Joseph himself is the second to youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and we know that his father preferred him over his ten older brothers. By blessing Ephraim before Manasseh, isn’t Jacob trying to say, “It’s all right to prefer the younger son?” He may be trying to justify his stealing the birthright from Esau or his preferring Joseph over his older brothers.
Starting with the story of Cain and Abel, we have seen younger brothers preferred over older ones – Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau. So Ephraim’s being blessed before Manasseh is actually the rule rather than the exception. But I don’t think that’s what this story is about. It’s not a struggle between brothers; it’s a battle between generations. Jacob is saying, “I’m not dead yet,” but Joseph is saying, “Come on, old man. It’s my turn.”
In Genesis, it’s Jacob who gets the last laugh. In this same parashah, Va-Yehi, he proceeds to “bless” his twelve sons – if you can call it a blessing. Once again, the first son is not the one to receive his father’s favor. He blasts Reuben for sleeping with one of his, Jacob’s, wives and calls Simeon and Levi a lawless pair. It is Judah whom he predicts will be the leader, and of course, we know he was right. The tribe of Judah, with their capital at Jerusalem, was the tribe that prevailed and became the Jewish people. Still, even here he his not entirely flattering, describing Judah as “a lion’s whelp.” He goes on to describe all the brothers and predict that some of their tribes will not survive.
What’s the moral of the story? Who’s right and who’s wrong? I think the answer to the latter question is “neither and both.” The world is certainly big enough for the old and the young to coexist, but we often forget this. Pick up any newspaper and you will read about generational conflicts. Go to family dinner on Shabbat or a festival and listen to the various views being voiced, with grandparents standing up for “the good old days” and the young looking to the future. The young seem to be on a different wavelength, but we old people aren’t quite ready to quietly fade into the sunset.
This parashah is the last in Genesis. Not only does Jacob die, but so does Joseph. And we will see at the beginning of Exodus that even the memory of Joseph fades away. Time moves on. Still, I take comfort in the fact that Jacob does not go quietly and that his sons honor him at the end.