Weekly Torah Talk on Vayechi 5773

on Thursday, 27 December 2012. Posted in Torah Talks

Is it Dad's Fault? Determination and Destiny in Genesis, and in Ourselves

This week we complete the story of Joseph—and of his great father Jacob, also known as Israel—with the final Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi. It begins with the description of the death of Jacob, and perhaps even more importantly, the final blessings that Jacob gives to his many sons. But one of the most interesting aspects of this section is a brief episode in which Joseph, who knows his father is dying, brings his own two sons, Jacob's grandsons Ephraim and Menasseh, to him for a blessing.

In keeping with an ongoing theme in Genesis, Jacob blesses the younger son Ephraim before the older son Menasseh. When Joseph tries to correct his father, Jacob assures him that this blessing order is intentional: both boys will father great tribes, but the younger will exceed the older in accomplishment. We still use this blessing each Friday night when we bless our own sons today, both in temple and at home.


In the Bible we always expect the older child to succeed at a greater level than the younger, to receive a certain bonus for being first-born. But repeatedly throughout Genesis the younger child ends up excelling the older, and receiving a greater portion of the inheritance. It is as if there is a clear message here: God has a plan that goes beyond the conventions of human society. As Paul Simon once sang, "God only knows, God makes his plan; the information unavailable to the mortal man."

For us this consistent reversal of the traditional roles teaches a different lesson. In the negative formulation of this, Shakespeare had Caesar say, "The fault, dear Brutus, likes not in our stars but in ourselves." That is, we can't attribute our own failures to our birth order, or our horoscope, or even our parents. Life happens, but how we respond to it is up to us, not our birth order. What we can do is to control our own actions and our own choices.

We each have the ability to shape our own destinies. Like Ephraim, or like Joseph himself or his own father Jacob, we may be born into less favor and fortune than others. But we can make our own way to success and goodness, and to God, if we work and care and continue to seek holiness.

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