To answer this question, this week's shiur groups the blessings in Sefer Breishit into three categories - "bechira," "bechora" and "bracha" - and then explains their significance in Parshat Va'ychi.
Introduction / Review
In our shiur on Parshat Toldot, we identified two categories of blessings to explain the nature of Yitzchak's blessings:
The more general term "bracha" we used in reference to a blessing of personal destiny, such as prosperity or power, given by a father to his son [or sons]. A good example of "bracha" is the blessing of prosperity and leadership that Yitzchak originally intended to bestow upon Esav, but was 'stolen' by Yaakov. (See 27:27-29.)
Towards the conclusion of Sefer Breishit, the "bechira" process ends when God chooses all of the children of Yaakov (the last of the Avot). (See Board #1.) Then, towards the end of Yaakov's life, he bestows "brachot" - blessings of fertility, prosperity and success - upon all his children (see 49:1-28).
Yosef's Bracha - Bechira or Bechora?
Although our above introduction explains the nature of Yaakov's "brachot" to his twelve sons in chapter 49, it does not explain the special blessing Yaakov confers upon Yosef's two sons, Menashe and Efraim, in chapter 48.
To understand what that blessing is all about, we must take a closer look at Yaakov's opening statement when Yosef arrives with his sons (see 48:1-2). [We quote this pasuk in Hebrew in order to highlight its textual parallels to earlier blessings to the Avot.]:
"And Yaakov said to Yosef: Kel Shaddai nirah ay'li b'Luz b'eretz Canaan va'yvarech oti, vayomer eilai, 'Hin'ni mafr'cha v'hir'biticha u'ntaticha l'khal amim, v'natati et ha'aretz ha'zot, l'zar'acha acharecha achuzat olam.'" (48:3-4)At first glance, this blessing appears to resemble the blessings we have called "bechira." It corresponds almost exactly to the blessing of "bechira" that Yitzchak had granted Yaakov prior to his departure from Eretz Canaan (when running away from Eisav):
"[And Yitzchak said to Yaakov]: v'Kel Shaddai y'varech otcha v'yafr'cha v'yarbecha v'hayitah l'khal amim - v'yiteyn lcha et birkat Avraham lcha u'l'zar'acha itach, l'rishtcha et eretz mgurecha..." (28:3-4)Similarly, it parallels almost precisely God's 'official' "bechira" of Yaakov upon his return to Eretz Canaan (at Bet El):
"[And God said to Yaakov]: ani Kel Shaddai, pre u'rveh, goy u'khal amim y'hiyeh mi'meka ... v'et ha'aretz asher natati l'Avraham v'Yitzchak, lcha et'nena u'l'zar'acha acharecha eteyn et ha'aretz." (35:11-12)Could it be that Yaakov confers the privilege of "bechira" upon Yosef, to the exclusion of his brothers? (See Board #2.) Is our original assumption - that the "bechira" process concluded with Yaakov - incorrect?
The answer to this question is quite simple. In these psukim (48:3-5), Yaakov does not bless Yosef with the "bechira." Rather, he informs Yosef about the "bechira" to provide him with the necessary background to appreciate the blessing that he is now about to receive - the blessing that we will call "bechora":
"Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt ... shall be mine; Efraim and Menashe are to me just as Reuven and Shimon." (48:5)In other words, even though all the brothers are "chosen," Yosef attains a special status: he receives a double portion ("pi shna'yim") in relation to his brothers. Both Efraim and Menashe are considered "shvatim" (tribes); they are to be granted equal standing as Reuven and Shimon. (See Board #3.)
Therefore, before bestowing this blessing, Yaakov first reminds Yosef of the "bechira" process (48:3-4). Within that framework of the chosen family (i.e. Yaakov's 12 sons), Yosef is awarded a double portion (48:5-6), referred to by Sefer Devarim (21:17) as "mishpat ha'bechora" (the fixed-statute of the first born).
Yaakov thus neither chooses nor rejects any of his children. He simply awards Yosef with the "bechora" prior to blessing each of his other children with his unique "bracha" (based on the son's individual character and potential - see 49:1-28).
The very next pasuk supports our explanation:
"But children born to you after them shall be yours; their inheritance shall be included under the name of their brothers." (48:6)In other words, should Yosef have any additional children, their portion must be included within the portions of Menashe and Efraim. As the family "bechor," Yosef's progeny receive a double portion, but no more, no matter how many children may ultimately be born.
But why should Yosef be considered the "bechor?" After all, his credentials for this distinction aren't very good. First and foremost, he is not Yaakov's firstborn! In fact, Yaakov later refers to Reuven as his "bechor" (see 49:3)! [Was Leah less of a wife to Yaakov than Rachel?] Secondly, Yaakov specifically requested that he be buried next to Leah (whose first born son was Reuven) in Ma'arat Ha'Machpela, while Yosef's mother, Rachel, was buried on a roadside! Does this not reflect Leah's stature as being at least on par with Rachel's? Shouldn't her firstborn naturally receive the birthright?
Why was Rachel Buried on the Road?
Apparently, Yaakov deals with this uncertainty in the very next pasuk:
"When I was returning from Padan, Rachel died suddenly during that journey, while we were still some distance from Efrata [and thus even farther away from Chevron!], and therefore I buried her on the road..." (48:7)Yaakov explains to Yosef that Rachel's burial on the roadside (rather than in "Ma'arat Ha'Machpela") was due to unforeseen circumstances, and thus should not be interpreted as an indication of a lower status. On the contrary, despite Rachel's somewhat disrespectful burial, Yaakov still considers her as having been his 'primary' wife. This is echoed in Yaakov's expression of his concern about sending Binyamin to Egypt, quoted by Yehuda in Parshat Vayigash:
"And your servant, my father, said to us: As you know, my wife bore me two sons, but one is gone..." (44:27)Therefore, even though Reuven is the firstborn of Leah, Yosef is awarded the family "bechora," since he is the firstborn to Yaakov's primary wife, the "ishah" whom he had originally intended to marry. (See 29:18-30.)
After awarding Yosef with the "bechora," Yaakov continues with a special blessing to Efraim and Menashe. Considering their new status as bona fide "shvatim," and recognizing the fact that they had grown up with no contact with their uncles and cousins, Yaakov adds a special blessing (see 48:8-20) to help facilitate their incorporation into the 'chosen family':
"Ha'malach ha'goel oti [who saved Yaakov] mikol ra [from all evil], y'varech et ha'n'arim [He should bless these children to help them 'blend in' with the chosen family, in order that:] v'yi'karey va'hem shmi v'shem avotai Avraham v'Yitzchak..." (See 48:16)In other words, in order that Yosef's two sons will be identified with Yaakov's family name - i.e. the name of the forefathers Avraham and Yitzchak - Yaakov blesses them with special Divine providence, the same providence that helped Yaakov survive his confrontation with Esav and Lavan.
A Time Will Come...
Yaakov concludes his blessing to Yosef by reminding him that a time will come when the 'chosen family' will return home:
"And Yisrael said to Yosef: I am about to die, but God will be with you and return you to the land of your fathers..." (48:21)In light of Yosef's appointment as family "bechor," he must assume the responsibility to inform the future generations of this Divine promise. Yaakov is not sure how long it will be until God will lead them back to Eretz Canaan. Nevertheless, his children must transmit this tradition to their children, so that when the time comes, they will be prepared to meet their destiny.
It is precisely this message that Yosef repeats to his brothers and family on his deathbed, at the conclusion of Sefer Breishit:
"And Yosef told his brothers, behold I am about to die, v'Elokim pakod yifkod etchem [God will surely remember you] and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised by oath to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." (50:24)Compare this with 48:21 and 46:3-4, as well as Shmot 3:13-22. As explained in last week's shiur, these psukim help form the link between the themes of Sefer Breishit and Sefer Shmot.
The Blessings of Personal Destiny
Now that the family "bechora" has been awarded to Yosef, Yaakov summons all his sons together (49:1) in order to give each his personal blessing. Although each son receives what the Torah describes as a "bracha" (see 49:28 - "ish asher k'virchato bay'rach otam"), not all these "brachot" appear to be what one would call a 'blessing.'
Reuven is told: "You are unstable as water, you shall no longer excel..." (49:4).
Shimon and Levi are rebuked: "Let not my person be included in their council ... For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger..." (49:5-7)
On the other hand, Yehuda and Yosef are emphatically blessed with both prosperity and leadership (see 49:8-12 and 49:22-26, respectively). Other brothers also receive blessings, albeit less promising than those of Yosef and Yehuda, but blessings nonetheless, as opposed to the sharp criticism hurled upon Shimon and Levi.
What is the meaning of these "brachot?" Do the individual traits of the brothers predetermine the fate of their offspring? Do Yaakov's blessings reflect the principle of determinism and negate the concept of "bechira chofshit" (free will)?
When Yaakov blesses his children, he assumes more the role of father rather than prophet. As a parent and the last forefather of God's special Nation, he must blend the goals of his family destiny with the realities of his life experience. His blessings, therefore, reflect the potential he sees within each of his children.
In order to fulfill a goal, a person must recognize his potential, both his good qualities and shortcomings. Recognizing his children's varying strengths and weaknesses, Yaakov blesses them according to their individual capabilities and talents. Although this blessing does not necessarily guarantee the final outcome, it guides and directs each son in the proper direction.
Yaakov does not intend his harsh castigation of Reuven, Shimon and Levi to result in ultimate condemnation. Rather, he hopes that they will recognize their weakness of character and work towards its improvement. As clearly demonstrated in Levi's case, this sharp rebuke can later turn into blessing, should that shevet return to the proper path (see Dvarim 33:8-11!).
Similarly, Yehuda and Yosef possess a potential for leadership that should be recognized by their offspring and properly developed and implemented. However, even the kings of the House of David must be constantly conscious of their conduct, in order that they be worthy of exercising their leadership (see Yirmiyahu 22:1-5!).
[This idea can help us understand most blessings (even Birkat Kohanim!). A "bracha" comes to remind a person of his individual potential, in order that it is channeled in the proper direction.]
Undoubtedly, the "brachot" of Yaakov contain additional prophetic and metaphysical significance as well. Yet, they do not negate the basic principle of "bechira chofshit" [freedom of choice].
Unity or Harmony?
Why must Am Yisrael consist of twelve distinct "shvatim?" Would it not have been better to form one homogenous society? Would this not be a more appropriate framework through which the one God is represented? Why must the friction between Yosef and Yehuda continue throughout the entire Tanach?
Recall our explanation of God's purpose in choosing a special nation in wake of the events at Migdal Bavel. It was God's hope that this special Nation would lead all Seventy Nations towards a theocentric existence. For this purpose Avraham Avinu was chosen, and for this purpose the existence of "shvatim" becomes indispensable. Let's explain:
People, by their very nature, tend to group into distinct societies, each with its own 'flag' - its own defining character, personality, goals and aspirations. These societies eventually develop into nations who may occasionally fight over opposing goals, or cooperate in working towards the realization of common goals.
Through His agent, Am Yisrael, God hopes that all nations, while remaining distinct, will recognize the common purpose for the creation of man and cooperate for the achievement of that goal.
As we see in Yaakov's "brachot" to his sons, each "shevet" possesses its own unique character and singularity. The composite of all these qualities can be harnessed towards a common good. As God's model Nation, the cooperation between the 'Twelve Tribes of Israel' in the fulfillment of their Divine and national goals can serve as an archetype for the Seventy Nations to emulate. Through harmonious cooperation and the unifying force of a common goal, the Nation of Avraham becomes a 'blessing' to all nations (see 12:1-3). Mankind thus realizes its potential, and Am Yisrael fulfills its Divine destiny.
For Further Iyun
A. In his blessing to Efraim and Menashe, "ha'malach ha'goel...," Yaakov makes reference to a "malach Elokim" who consistently saved him from all "ra" (evil). (See 48:16.)
B. Ha'tachat Elokim Ani?
After Yaakov's death, the brothers beg Yosef to forgive them for their animosity towards him. Yosef assures them that they need not worry, for whereas he is not God, he has neither the responsibility nor the right to punish them. (See 50:15-21.) [This is the simple and standard explanation]. Yet, if we examine those psukim carefully, we may uncover an added dimension to Yosef's response, "ha'tachat Elokim ani?" Let's explain:
When the brothers ask Yosef's forgiveness, they explain that their father instructed them to say as follows (50:17):
"Forgive the offense and guilt of your brothers ... Please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father..."Immediately thereafter, the brothers suggest their own punishment, that they be slaves to Yosef. Yosef refuses this offer by explaining, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of of God?"
Yosef's answer responds directly to his brothers' comments. First, they ask to be forgiven on account of their being the servants of God. Then, they offer themselves as servants to Yosef. Yosef answers them accordingly: should they become his servants, they will no longer be servants of God. Therefore, Yosef tells his brothers - "ha'tachat Elokim ani?" - should he consider himself a replacement or 'substitute' for God? The brothers must remain God's servants, not the servants of Yosef!
C. "Pakod Yifkod" and Sefer Shmot
An obvious question that arises when studying Parshat Va'ychi is, why didn't Yaakov's family return to Eretz Canaan once the famine ended? One could suggest that although they could and should have returned, they opted instead for the 'good life' in Eretz Mitzrayim (see story of Avraham and Lot, 13:4-14). One could even suggest that their enslavement in Egypt was a punishment for this 'un-Zionistic' attitude.
Nevertheless, it seems as though Bnei Yisrael felt it their Divine destiny to stay in Egypt. This conception most likely evolved as a result of God's promise to Yaakov prior to his departure to Egypt: "Do not fear going down to Egypt, for you will become a great nation there. I will go down with you, and I will bring you back..." (46:3-4).