Parshas Vayechi – Yaakov’s definition of a firstborn

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By: Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld

Yakov has settled in Egypt to enjoy the end of his life with his family, and he is now getting older. He calls for Yosef to come to him, so he can bless him before he dies. He then blesses אפרים and מנשה and says the famous words that have lived on till today, ישימך אלהי-ם כאפרים וכמנשה. But when he is giving the blessings Yakov crosses his hands so that his right, dominant hand rested on the head of Ephraim who was the younger brother. If we pull back the zoom lens I think this story should remind us of another story we read a few weeks ago.

ועיני ישראל כבדו מזקן, יעקב’s eyes got heavy with age and he wasn’t able to see clearly. When else did we have a story about an elderly father whose eyes were weak… it was Yitzchak! ויהי כי זקן יצחק ותכהין עיניו מראת. Now you may say that it was just a genetic thing, and it doesn’t mean anything of significance. But think about the rest of the stories, in both cases there were two brothers receiving blessings from the elderly father, and in both cases the younger brother took the place of the older brother. The only difference is that Yitzchak had no idea what was going on and Yakov is the exact opposite, the Torah say שכל את ידיו, he intentionally crossed his hands so that the right hand would touch the younger brothers head. He meant to give precedence to the younger brother instead of the older.

I would like to follow these two stories from Yakov’s point of view and see what we come out with.

As Yitzchak is getting ready to pass on the mantle of carrying the tradition of being the family that will become God’s nation in the world, Rivka urges and pushes Yakov to trick his father and dress up like Eisav to pretend to be the בכור. But as Yakov is protesting he says something interesting, he says אולי ימושני אבי והייתי בעיניו כמתעתע, maybe father will feel me (and he’ll realize that I am Yakov) and I will be in his eyes like a tricker. Why does he say, “and I will look like a tricker”? he in fact was tricking his father so why does the Torah record this as only looking like he is tricking him. It seems like from Yakov and Rivka’s point of view there was no actual trickery, only what Yitzchak would perceive as trickery. Perhaps Yakov had a different definition of what a בכור was and therefore viewed himself as the true בכור, and only Yitzchak didn’t see it that way.

R’ Hutner discusses the definition of a בכור and he says this: the purpose of the בכור is to bring the glory of the father into the world. The firstborn in a family is the one who had “alone-time” with the parents so to speak and is therefore able to be a bridge between the parents and the rest of the children. Numerically this is true as well, father is אב, which is 1-2 in numerical value, and בכר is 2-20-200. So, the בכור takes the oneness of father which begins to multiply and expands it exponentially. I think that this was the definition that Yakov had for being a בכור and therefore felt that he was the true בכור. This was why he purchased the בכורה from עשו when they were 15 years old, he knew that being a בכור is more about carrying out a mission than being technically firstborn. The Sforno explains when Yakov said at that sale “מכרה כיום” (which typically is translated make this sale as clear as day) כי בהיות היום כל מגמת פניך אל מלאכתך באופן שאתה כל כך עייף שאינך מכיר הנזיד אין ספק שלא תוכל להתעסק בעניני הבכורה לשרת לא-ל יתברך ולעשות את הראוי לבכור. Yakov was telling Eisav, “today” is the reason you should sell the בכורה, it is obvious that if today your entire focus is on your work and worldly needs, to the extent that you are so exhausted that you can’t even identify this soup as a food and only as a red dish, it is obvious that you will not be able to deal with the responsibilities of being a בכור to serve Hashem properly. He was saying that being a בכור is about serving God and living this life properly, and has little to do with being a few minutes older.

Coming back to our פרשה, Yakov is finally in the position that his father was in, old, poor sight, on the way out of this world. And he calls his son that he was separated from for so long and his two children. And when he blesses them he sees that the younger one is going to be greater and bring more glory to God, so he intentionally crosses his arms to give the greater quantity of ברכה to אפרים. And when Yosef protests, Yakov says ידעתי בני ידעתי, you can almost see the knowing smile on Yaakov’s angelic face, גם הוא יהיה לעם וגם הוא יגדל ואולם אחיו הקטן יגדל ממנו וזרעו יהיה מלא הגוים. Yes, מנשה will be great, but Ephraim will be even greater and will bring more glory of Hashem into the world. and for that reason, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize to us that Yakov put אפרים before מנשה. Yakov was giving over his definition of being firstborn to Yosef who wasn’t either chronologically the firstborn, that his younger son would be the “בכור” so to speak and that the real mission is about bringing Hashem’s glory into the world.

May we all be zoche to live up to our mission of בני בכורי ישראל and to all be vehicles that bring Hashem’s glory into the world.

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