Whither the First Born?

One can learn a great deal about how not to parent by reading the stories of the dysfunctional matriarchal/patriarchal families that comprise a substantial proportion
of the narrative in Genesis. One pattern that generates much pain for the dramatis personae of the first book of Scripture is parental favoritism of certain children over their siblings.

This begins with Sarah and her understandable affinity for Isaac. It continues with Rebecca favoring Jacob and Isaac favoring Esau and concludes with Jacob’s preference for Joseph, Benjamin and Judah and his (justified) disdain for his three eldest sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi.

In all instances, the first-born sons do not taste the fruits of primogeniture, a situation that flies in the face of the uncompromisingly clear statement in Deuteronomy 21:15-16, where we learn that if a man should have two wives, one who is loved (ahuvah) and one who is unloved (s’nuah), and if the first-born son is the child of the unloved wife, he shall, nevertheless, receive the larger portion of his father’s estate. The terms ahuvah and s’nuah call to mind Jacob’s feelings for Rachel and Leah, respectively.

In Parshat Vayehi, the pattern of giving a preferential blessing to a younger child and not to the first-born carries over to Joseph’s children. Interestingly, Joseph is not the one responsible for this action but, rather, Jacob, who willfully and unambiguously elevates Ephraim above his older brother, Menashe, when blessing his grandsons after adopting them as his own children (Genesis 48:5).

We learn from the biblical account that Joseph positions his sons in front of his now-blind father, with Ephraim opposite Jacob’s left hand and Menashe opposite his right, so Jacob can place his right hand on Menashe’s head — the use of the right hand being a recognition and affirmation of the first-born’s status.

Jacob, however, in spite of his blindness, realizes what Joseph has done, crosses his hands so that his right hand rests on Ephraim’s head and, with his hands thus positioned, blesses the two boys. Joseph, seeking to ensure that his eldest has his superior status affirmed by Jacob, attempts to correct his father. Jacob, however, essentially says: “Leave me alone; I know exactly what I am doing” (Genesis 48:13-20).

What moved Jacob to do what he did?

There is a midrashic tradition that suggests that Jacob, in crossing his hands, may have been motivated by the Holy Spirit of prophetic illumination, which enabled him to read God’s will. But the need to explain Jacob’s actions results from an ancient question: How could Jacob ignore the Deuteronomic law, which clearly states that the first-born’s privilege is not revocable?

It is reflected in the I Chronicles 5:1-2 explanation that Reuben lost his first-born status when he inappropriately had sexual relations with Bilhah, Rachel’s concubine and Jacob’s bedmate. The Talmud (Bava Batra 123a) cites the Chronicles passage in its discussion of the matter.

The need to justify Jacob’s actions regarding his sons and grandsons also emerges from the fact that in the Torah, God tells Abraham and Rebecca that their sons, Isaac and Jacob, respectively, will gain the right of primogeniture, supplanting their older brothers, Ishmael and Esau. According to the biblical accounts, Jacob is given no such Divine mandate. So, midrashic explanations are sought.

The thinking behind all of this is: People are expected to follow God’s law. Rabbinic tradition teaches that even though Jacob lived before the Sinaitic revelation, he knew Torah because he studied at the yeshivah of Shem and Ever. So, he was obligated to follow the Torah law regarding the first born.

God, however, transcends natural law and, likewise, Torah law. If God has a master plan, then principles that define normal human relationships can be abrogated. God, therefore, can allow a younger brother to assume the status of a first born. People, however, cannot. Jacob’s doing so, therefore, requires a rationale, and one such rationale is that Jacob was able to read God’s “mind.” He had unique prophetic or mystical powers, the sages say.

We, however, do not have such powers, and we cannot know that God has ordained certain exceptions (even if they prove the rule). We are expected to follow God’s rules and generate functional families. The rule of primogeniture is no longer operative in our society, but the Divinely ordained principles of fairness, compassion, righteousness and justice are.

We are, therefore, obligated to define our family relationships in accordance with these principles and provide a solid foundation for the societies in miniature that operate within our homes. In the overall scheme of things, it is God’s will that shalom bayit, or household harmony, prevails in our homes and that our children experience love, trust, loyalty and honesty so they can transmit these ideals down the generations.

So the Torah actually uses the accounts of our dysfunctional matriarchal/patriarchal families to teach us what not to do in the hope that we learn what to do.

Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.