Hard Conversations

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Problems We Foresee

In Parshat Va-Yechi, Yosef brings his sons to Ya’akov for a blessing. Ya’akov welcomes the boys in theory, grants them status in his family equal to that of Re’uven and Shim’on, then questions who they are in verse eight! Yosef replies they are my sons, whom God has given me here, and Ya’akov returns to welcoming them, says bring them to me and I will bless them. His question jumps out, since he had seemed to already be excited about them.

Kli Yakar offers missing context. He thinks Ya’akov was challenging Yosef as to why he would bless these two, whose descendants would lead the Jews to worship other powers than God. He means I Melachim 12, where Yerov’am, the leader of the new Northern Kingdom of Israel (the Kingdom of Efrayim), works to avoid his subjects’ return to the Temple by establishing two golden calves as substitutes. In verse 28, Yerov’am says “here are your gods, Israel, who took you out of Egypt.”

Kli Yakar remembers the Jews said the same in the desert, at the sin of the Golden Calf. They said eileh, these are, and Kli Yakar connects it to Ya’akov challenging Yosef, mi eileh, who are these. Ya’akov sensed their descendants would lead a move back to golden calves, and wondered why he should bless them. [Unfortunately for the drasha, Yerov’am actually used the word hinei, here are; it was the Jews in the desert who said eileh, the word Ya’akov uses. I think Kli Yakar would say it set up a paradigm, every turn to golden calves after the desert was an “eileh” experience.]

What Balances the Bad

Yosef responds they are his sons, whom God had given him in this place. Kli Yakar hears him telling his father they also have his, Yosef’s, blood in them, and that half of their genetics can be expected to act well, deserve a blessing. The negatives Ya’akov sees aren’t fully their fault, it was God’s plan to give Yosef these sons in Egypt, with a mother whose father was a priest of idolatry, so they do have the idolatry piece.

More, the family had a history of taking in people with idolatrous background, and of blessing people whose descendants worshipped other powers than God. Yitzhak was blessed even though he would have an Esav, the product of Rivkah’s being the daughter of Betu’el. Clearly, blessing focuses on the person now, and Menasheh and Efraim now, Kli Yakar hears Yosef saying, deserved the beracha.

Ya’akov concedes. His saying “kahem na eilai, to me” tells Kli Yakar Ya’akov agreed it was his merit that earned his father a blessing, was the reason Hashem ignored the Esav side of the family. Ya’akov says na, a word we often read as please, but Kli Yakar takes as “now,” another way to hint he was blessing them as they were now, not worrying about the future.

[I don’t know how hard it was to raise children in Kli Yakar’s time, but were a rabbi to deliver a sermon with this message today, I would think he was trying to encourage an audience who saw too many of their descendants leaving the religion. He would be telling them God’s blessings focus on who we are now more than what our progeny will do, and that having anygood progeny outweighs those who take unfortunate paths, even to become an Esav.]

Yosef Feels Unfairly Suspected

Hatam Sofer sees two stages to Yosef’s interaction with his father about blessing the boys. The verses tell us Yosef presented them with Menasheh to Ya’akov’s right, and Ya’akov switched his hands to put the right on Efrayim. Hatam Sofer, 48;17, quotes Tosafot on the Torah, Yosef thought Ya’akov assumed the boys had been presented to him from Yosef’s perspective, with the firstborn on his right.

I think most of us would have said he would of course think from his father’s angle [it’s in fact a little strange to think Ya’akov would think otherwise, it seems to me]. Hatam Sofer gives that more halachic weight, Yosef would not have focused on himself in the presence of his father because Baba Batra 119b tells us we do not give honor to a student in the place of the teacher. The verse tells us Yosef was annoyed when his father switched his hands (va-yera be-einav, it was bad in his eyes), Hatam Sofer thinks Yosef was bothered that Ya’akov would think he, Yosef, had insufficient respect for his teacher.

Blessings of Torah

But if the placement of Ya’akov’s hands was the issue, why did Yosef wait until after the first part of Ya’akov’s berachah, in verses 15-16, only to be picked up again in verse 20? Hatam Sofer connects it to the last words before Yosef interrupts. He thinks Yosef had expected Ya’akov to start blessing the boys on matters of Torah and its understanding, and Baba Batra 120b tells us that for those issues, we follow wisdom.

Since Efrayim was the Torah scholar of the family (as I heard from R. Mordechai Willig at se’udah shelishit for Shabbat Parshat Miketz, Rashi tells us it was Efrayim who told Yosef his father was ill, because Efrayim spent his days studying with his grandfather, where Menasheh was, according to Rashi, the translator in Yosef’s court), it made sense for the right hand to go on him for that part.

Blessings for Life

When Yosef heard ve-yidgu la-rov be-kerev ha-aretz, may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth, he felt he had to step in.  Hatam Sofer tells us he has elsewhere interpreted the phrase to mean that even if the Jews are like fish on land, have stopped studying Torah, the merit of their forefathers will protect them. In that reading, this part of the beracha  is not about Torah and its study, and these more mundane concerns, Yosef thought, should go to Menasheh more, because the passage in Baba Batra says that for parties, to Hatam Sofer a way to refer to matters of the physical world, we follow age priority.

[He is reading Baba Batra somewhat homiletically, but that’s not our concern. For his idea of “fish out of water,” I think he means us to think of the story R. Akiva told to explain why he continued to teach Torah despite the grave danger (is there any other kind?); R. Akiva imagined a fish mocking a fox who invited him to come out of the water to avoid the fisherman’s net. If the fish was worried in the water, how much more so out of it, where he couldn’t live at all?

He took the idea from Ya’akov’s word yidgu for “will multiply,” with the root of dag, because fish breed in great numbers, and the blessing said be-kerev ha-aretz, upon the earth. He was saying even if they multiply like fish on land, they will still have blessing.]

Ya’akov’s answer was that Efrayim’s descendants would be melo ha-goyim, literally plentiful enough for nations, but which Hatam Sofer takes to describe Yehoshu’a, the descendant of Efrayim’s Rashi said was the reason Ya’akov put him first. Yehoshu’a would be a muflag be-hochmah, far outstrip others with his wisdom, and a muflag be-hochmahreceives all honors first.

[This week’s essay is already longer than last, so I will leave it to you to consider what assumptions Hatam Sofer has made with or without support from tradition, and how convincing we find those.]

End of Days is Not The End of Days

Chapter 49 opens with Ya’akov gathering his sons to tell them what would happen be-aharit ha-yamim. It’s somewhat well-known that Hazal thought Ya’akov intended to lay out the course of history, all the way to the Messianic era. Ha’amek Davar warns us against the error of thinking the phrase aharit ha-yamim prompted that reading. No, it was ve-agidah lachem, I will tell you, he is sure.

Because aharit ha-yamim, the end of days, does not mean the Messianic era, he says. For example, in Devarim 31;29, Moshe Rabbenu refers to misfortunes the Jews will face be-aharit ha-yamim, when the Messianic era will be all beneficial.

Nor do Ya’akov’s words address only the Messianic future, he says, with the example of Zevulun residing by the sea, when the end of Yehezkel [which does address Messianic times] does not place him there. [We could counter that tradition says Ya’akov had the vision of the future taken away from him, making him realize he was not supposed to reveal it.]

To me, a more convincing proof that Ha’amek Davar gives is Bil’am telling Balak he would reveal what the Jews would do to him be-aharit ha-yamim, which Ha’amek Davar is sure must have already happened, considering there is no more nation called Moav in the world [although still debatable; I think many think we have lost Moav currently, but will find them again at some point].

The End of These Days

His alternative is that aharit ha-yamim speaks of the end of the current period. Ya’akov was about to tell his sons what would happen at the end of their Egyptian exile, their entry into Israel, all the way through the period of the judges, until David and Shlomo would really settle them in the land. Ditto for Bil’am and Balak.

Moshe had a farther range in mind [a bit problematically for his claim about the words aharit ha-yamim, I think], was referring to the Jews’ sins once Shlomo passed from the scene, his aharit ha-yamim meaning the end of the First Temple.

We got used to thinking of it as the Messianic era because the rest of the prophets used the phrase regarding the times of exile, and the end of that period will indeed be yemot ha-Mashiach.

How did Hazal infer Ya’akov wanted to reveal the Messianic future, then? Because he used the verb of haggadah, to Ha’amek Davar a verb of telling something secret and hidden.

In two significant conversations in our parsha, Kli Yakar thinks Yosef had to convince Ya’akov to focus on the positive about his sons in order to bless them, Hatam Sofer thinks he and his father debated who should get the blessings first, depending on the content of the blessings and the sons’ different roles, and Ha’amek Davar cautions us to read the words of the Torah carefully, to see that aharit ha-yamim means the end of any period, where haggadah involves the revealing of a secret, in our parsha’s case, a Messianic one.

About Gidon Rothstein

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