Vayechy - weekly Torah portion

Imagine this event – Jacob, also known as Israel, at the end of his days on earth, a sick man. His son, Joseph, brings his two sons, Manasseh, his first born, and Ephraim, his younger brother, so that Jacob may bless them from his deathbed. Jacob hears about this upcoming visit and it does him good, “Israel collected his strength and sat up in the bed.” So that Jacob finds it easier to bless the kids Joseph placed them before the blind old man, “Ephraim with his right hand toward Israel’s left, and Manasseh with his left hand toward Israel’s right, and brought them close to him.” This way Jacob’s right hand would be easily place on the elder brother’s head, and so that the left hand could be placed on top of the younger brother’s head. However, Jacob has a mind of his own, “stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head, crossing his hands, although Manasseh was the firstborn.” And just like that Jacob changes things yet again. When he was young he did the same thing to his elder brother Esso and acquired the rights’ of the firstborn. Now he was one knowingly giving it to the younger brother. He acknowledges Joseph’s protest and responds, “I know, my son, I know; he also will become a people and he also will be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.”

Twice in his lifetime Jacob changes the order of things for others. First he does that for his father Isaac and makes him give to Jacob the blessing that was due to Esso, the elder brother, the firstborn. In this case, however, only a short interval of time passed between the birth of the brothers, Jacob entering the world holding the heel of his brother. This time Jacob leaps ahead with the change he makes as Ephraim was by far the younger brother. Although they were several years apart Jacob decides it is time to part from old traditions, call against what was perceived as correct, as just, as unchangeable – the firstborn has priority merely because he was born some time before another brother. He consciously decided to instill change. He blesses them, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh!” and yet, “he put Ephraim before Manasseh.”

From the distance of millennia away Jacob still calls upon us to notice that the fact that someone was first does not mean that his is what should be the future too. It is simple as crossing one’s hands that can cause a difference. Almost effortlessly that which seems to be unchanged and unchangeable, changes completely. That which was “unthinkable” becomes part of our lives and opens for us new opportunities. He who was destined to take the back seat becomes the driver into the future. There is nothing wrong about it and it is essential to cease opportunities, trying to predict the future so that we do not become the slaves of our past. It is so comfortable to simply stick to what our ancestors have done and claim that we must continue to do the very same, without checking, with no critique, void of change. Jacob teaches us that this is not a Jewish way of life.

Without change one cannot advance. Mighty chains anchor us to our past preventing us from doing that which we are destined to do – live within our Judaism. Living it means challenging ourselves about it again, and again, and over and over again. There is nothing easier than walking once more on a well-travelled and well-paved road. One which has been trod upon a thousand times over. It is a passage that is smooth. It will take us to the same place over and over again but will never be able to bring us somewhere new. It is valid to question to be asked if we want to get to a new place – maybe we just want to stay where we are. Jacob gives us the answer, “his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” We can choose not to make the change but it comes with a price tag. The older brother will never reach that which his younger brother may be able to reach. However, if we opt not to cross our hands, if we are not wise enough to hand out the opportunity, the opportunity shall be lost.

Changing what is common practice does not necessarily mean a revolution. It bags change not upheaval. The crossing of the hands does not represent loss of order but rather it symbolizes change. It is connected to its source, takes it a step or two forward but never disconnects from its past. Jacob is fully connected to his past and says, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day”. This sentence has the connection to the past and the navigation into the future. A road that Jacob walks, part of it which is well maintained, some of it which is new and different, but come from the same source. A Jewish source, our source. We too may cross our hands so that we can move from what happened it the past to what will happen in the future. Taking another Jewish step from the past and into the future, so that “God will be with you”.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reuven Marko, 21 December 2018, 14 Tevet, 5779

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