fbpx

Unscrolled Vayechi: Disrupting the Natural Order

We are being set up by the text to anticipate a recurrence of this eternally recurring motif—the overturn of primogeniture—in which the younger sibling attains the blessing and privilege due the older.
[additional-authors]
December 17, 2021
Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menashe. (mikroman6/Getty Images)

“Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see” (Genesis 48:10).

This line transports us in time and space. We recall when it was Isaac whose eyes had dimmed, back when Israel—then Jacob—disguised himself as his older twin Esau in order to steal his father’s blessing.

We are being set up by the text to anticipate a recurrence of this eternally recurring motif—the overturn of primogeniture—in which the younger sibling attains the blessing and privilege due the older.

We saw it when Abel’s offering was favored over that of Cain. We saw it when Isaac was chosen to be the covenantal son over Ishmael. We saw it when Jacob outwitted Esau. We saw it when Rachel was favored above Leah. We saw it when Zerah’s grasping hand reached out of the womb before his older twin won the race to be born.

Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses will codify the law of the firstborn, expressly forbidding the kind of undue favoritism toward the younger that has characterized so much of the Torah’s narrative chapters. It is as if Moses the lawgiver, the man of Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not—cannot abide the inherent disorderliness of this motif.

According to the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the entire Torah can be read as “a sustained polemic against the use of power.” To view the overturn of primogeniture through this lens, we might understand it as a theatrical playing out of the familiar beatitude that the weak shall inherit the earth. It is as if the Torah is telling us that it is not the strong man of the hunt (Esau) who will be favored, but the simple man of the tent (Jacob). Not the murderous (Cain), but the pure (Abel). Not the entitled (Leah), but the humble (Rachel). Not the boastful (Ishmael), but the self-effacing (Isaac).

In Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, it is written that “love confounds the natural order.” It is love—in all its fickleness and intensity—that leads to the younger being chosen over the older. In the first instance, it is God’s arbitrary delight in Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For Isaac and Ishmael, it is Abraham’s love of his first wife, Sarah, over Hagar. For Jacob and Esau, it is Rebekah’s favoritism of Jacob. Love, in Genesis, is the greatest source of chaos and strife. It is also the pen with which history is written and the vessel by which God is made manifest in the world.

Love, in Genesis, is the greatest source of chaos and strife. It is also the pen with which history is written and the vessel by which God is made manifest in the world.

In Parashat Vayechi, Joseph, himself a younger son treated to the blessings of the elder, brings his own two sons before his father to receive their blessings. Knowing how delicate a moment this is, he places them in such a way that Jacob’s right hand, the hand of blessing, will naturally land upon the elder Menashe’s head. His left hand will fall upon the head of Ephraim, the younger.

Defying common sense, dim-eyed Jacob stretches out his arms like an X in front of him, bestowing the blessing of the firstborn on the younger and the blessing of the younger on the firstborn.

“Not so, Father,” Joseph corrects, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head” (48:18). But Jacob refuses, stating, “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, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations” (48:19).

It is now revealed that Jacob’s dim eyes were a red herring. He is fully aware of what he is doing. The subconscious pattern has become explicit.

It is as if, here at the very end of the book of Genesis, the characters have at last realized the nature of the story that they are in. They are not pawns in a cosmic drama. Instead, they act it out with intentionality. In Jacob’s wry “I know, my son, I know,” we hear Israel’s great wisdom. At last, he is in on God’s joke.

And so, here is the very essence of Jacob’s blessing. With arms crossed, he says: may the natural order continue to be disrupted. May history—riotous and sublime—continue to unfold. May we continue to question the authority of earthly power—be it the wicked tyranny of Pharaohs or the absurd prizing of the firstborn over all.


Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.