Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Yaakov Comes Full-Circle

[This is the final instalment (for now, at least) of a series on the development of the Birchas HaAvos in Sefer Bereishis. Begin the Trail here. It has been an exciting venture. Originally envisioned as a three-part series, the trail mushroomed to eight as more and more pieces fell into place - all of it leading up to this final post. Special thanks to Alain Kuppermann for encouraging me to put it all in writing.]

At the end of the book, Yaakov is at the end of his life; the time has come to bless the children. Yaakov spreads out the family destiny among all twelve of his sons; forging them in the process into one united "Bnei Yisroel." But before he does that, Yosef visits him first. What transpires is a meeting of historic consequence:
ויגד ליעקב ויאמר הנה בנך יוסף בא אליך ויתחזק ישראל וישב על המטה
ויאמר יעקב אל יוסף אל שדי נראה אלי בלוז בארץ כנען ויברך אתי
ויאמר אלי הנני מפרך והרביתך ונתתיך לקהל עמים ונתתי את הארץ הזאת לזרעך אחריך אחזת עולם
When Yaakov was told that Yosef was coming to him, Yisroel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. Yaakov said to Yosef, "אל שדי appeared to me in Luz, in the Land of Canaan. He blessed me and said to me, 'I will make you fruitful and numerous, and have you give rise to an assembly of nations. I will give this land to you and your descendants as their property forever.'"
By now, we recognize this blessing of אל שדי. This is the spiritual blessing that Hashem gave to Avraham at the end of Lech Lecha, Yitzchok reserved for Yaakov at the end of Toldos, and Hashem Himself gave to Yaakov in Vayishlach. This is the Beracha that Yaakov is now passing on to Menashe and Ephraim, the two sons of Yosef:
ויברך את יוסף ויאמר האלהים אשר התהלכו אבתי לפניו אברהם ויצחק האלהים הרעה אתי מעודי עד היום הזה
המלאך הגאל אתי מכל רע יברך את הנערים ויקרא בהם שמי ושם אבתי אברהם ויצחק וידגו לרב בקרב הארץ

רש"י: וידגו - כדגים הללו שפרים ורבים
פרו ורבו, "be fruitful and multiply," is a signature element of the original Beracha of אל שדי! Yaakov is giving the Beracha of פרו ורבו to the sons of Yosef, thereby pronouncing them inheritors of the Beracha of אל שדי.

Later, when Yaakov gathers all his sons around him for their blessings, he again directs the Beracha of אל שדי in Yosef's direction:
מאל אביך ויעזרך ואת שדי ויברכך
What is amazing is that Yaakov chooses to share this particular blessing with Yosef. For, as we are well aware, there is another blessing in the family.

The Beracha that Hashem gave Avraham at the beginning of Lech Lecha, the Beracha that Yitzchok reserved for Eisav, the Beracha of material bounty and physical power - this Beracha too is held by Yaakov; under orders from his mother, he stole it from his brother. Why does Yaakov make no mention of this Beracha? Wouldn't this Beracha be more appropriate for Yosef? Does Yaakov not see that in Yosef the blessing of abundant grain and bowing brothers and nations is being fulfilled? Is it not obvious that Eisav's Beracha is Yosef's destiny? Why doesn't Yaakov strengthen Yosef's role as the supporter of the nascent Jewish people?

There can be only one answer: Yaakov sees the way things are developing, and he doesn't like it. Grabbing destiny by the horns, he steers it in a different direction.

Once upon a time, Yaakov bought in to Yitzchok's idea of a partnership between a "Yaakov" and an "Eisav," and he struggled against his mother's attempt to unify the blessings. But in his old age, Yaakov has come to see the wisdom of Rivkah. He doesn't want Yosef to be an idealized Eisav. He wants Yosef to be another Yaakov: a man who has it all. Consciously ignoring the facts on the ground, Yaakov directs the blessing of אל שדי to Yosef.

Yaakov knows exactly what he's doing. Listen to what he says to Yosef:
ברכת אביך גברו על ברכת הורי

The blessing of your father will override the blessing of my parents.
What does this mean? Note that Yaakov does not say that his blessing overrides his father's blessing, he says that it overrides his parent's blessing. Yaakov is talking about the Beracha he stole from Eisav! It came from Yitzchok, but Yaakov only got it because of Rivkah - ברכת הורי indeed! (See Rashi ad loc. who interprets the word הורי as referring specifically to a mother.) Yaakov is telling Yosef that his blessing overrides the Beracha of Eisav. Yaakov doesn't want Yosef to be Eisav 2.0; he wants Yosef to get the Beracha of אל שדי!

This gives us a new appreciation for Yaakov's strange statement at the beginning of the Parsha:
ועתה שני בניך הנולדים לך בארץ מצרים עד באי אליך מצרימה לי הם אפרים ומנשה כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי
Yaakov is telling Yosef, "I don't want your children to be any different than Reuven or Shimon! The entire family shall share in all the Berachos equally!"

The Midrash tells us that Yosef's two sons led different lives. Menashe, the older brother, served as his father's secretary in the government (Rashi 42:23), while Ephraim learned Torah with zeide Yaakov (Rashi to 48:1). When he blesses them, Yaakov famously switches his hands, directing the greater Beracha emanating from his right hand onto the head of the younger Ephraim. Yaakov explains that although both will be great, Ephraim will be the greater of the two (48:19), but in light of Yaakov's underlying agenda we can better appreciate what he is doing here.
Following in his father's footsteps, Menashe is primed to inherit Yosef's position. The natural thing for Yaakov to do would be to grant the Beracha of power, wealth and the role of supporting Klal Yisroel to Menashe. But Yaakov does the exact opposite. He gives Yosef's sons the Beracha of אל שדי, and elevates Ephraim, the יושב אהלים, over his older brother, the איש שדה! Strange as it is, we recognize this behavior. Yaakov is doing to Yosef's sons the exact same thing he did to Yosef himself - raising the spiritual over the physical and smothering the emergent Eisav in the Beracha of אל שדי.

[We're going to hold it here for now. Not that the trail's gone cold (compare 48:8, 49:25 and Devarim 33:13 to Bereishis 27:28-29; cf. Rashi to Devarim 33:28 & Rashi to Shemos 6:4), but we're halfway through Sefer Shemos and it is time to move on. There's always next time around, be"H & bl"n.]

I guess not. I had a thought on Megillah Esther that flowed directly out of the ideas developed in this series. That would make it part-nine.

Click here to learn how Yosef's dreams are informed by the family legacy and manipulated by none other than Yosef himself.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this trail with us. I look forward to your next installments. Here are my thoughts after reading the entire stream:
    I love the Vort of Yaakov putting stones around his head because that's all he needed to protect. That question always bothered me. What you seem to be saying is that he wasn't concerned about a physical attack. That is interesting. What were the rocks for then? Also why did the rocks turn into one under his head? What is that about?
    I like the Pshat about Avrohom not taing gifts from Melech Sdom but taking from Paroh and Avimelech. Is that your own Chidush?
    I never paid attention to "קח נא את ברכתי" I always just assumed it was "take this great stuff" Your Pshat is very Geshmak.
    I also really like the Pshat of "Birchos Avicha Gavru Al Birchos Horai"

    1. Shalom Avromi!
      Thank you so much for reading it through and sharing your feedback. I am flattered. It is friends like you that keep me on my toes and inspire me to continue writing.
      (Please accept this thank-you note, even though it is almost six years late.)