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Genesis reads like a sibling rivalry primer

By Amy Kazilsky

January 8th, 2009

Genesis 47:28-50:26
I Kings 2:1-12

The last portion of Genesis begins with Jacob’s imminent death and his insistence that he not be buried in Egypt. After blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob describes his own sons and how their characters will play out for the future.

Jacob dies and is embalmed. Then Joseph, with his brothers and many Egyptians attending, buries Jacob in Hebron.

With Jacob gone, Joseph’s brothers fear retribution for their wrongdoing and share their father’s alleged last words that Joseph should forgive them their treachery.

Joseph assures them that all is well and not to worry. The portion and the book ends with Joseph’s death and embalming.

Reading like a sibling rivalry manifesto, Genesis details the stories of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers.

Could these rivalries have been exacerbated by parental influence? Did the parents’ actions influence the development of these battles of wills, egos, and minds? Or were these relationships destined to unfold as they did throughout the Torah’s first book?

No doubt parental favoritism fueled these sibling fires: Abraham’s willingness to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, Laban deceiving Jacob with Leah, and Jacob’s fawning over Joseph.

And yet despite this pattern, one pair of brothers reverses the trend: Ephraim and Menashe.

Reverses hands

So remarkable is this that we bless our sons before Shabbat dinner by repeating Jacob’s blessing, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20).

However, when Jacob blesses them, he places his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Menashe’s, even though Menashe is the firstborn.

Joseph attempts to correct what he sees as an error. Jacob asserts that he is well aware of whom he is blessing.

Referring to Menashe, Jacob says, “He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of blessings” (Genesis 48:19).

Furthermore, Menashe appears undisturbed by Ephraim’s precedence in the blessing.

Rabbi Shraga Simmons suggests that Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from the pattern of sibling rivalry and that this explains why Jacob purposely switched his hands, blessing the younger before the older.

In so doing, Jacob wished to emphasize that with these siblings, there is no rivalry. (See Simmons’ commentary at the Web site www.aish.com.)

Once Jacob has blessed his grandsons, he gathers his sons around him, saying he will “tell you what shall befall to you in the days to come.”

What would appear as a blessing is actually “a combination of prayer, blessing, curse, warning, psychological assessment, parable, recollection, and hope” (“The Torah: A Modern Commentary”). Indeed, the juxtaposition of Jacob’s blessings to his grandchildren with this is striking.

Rabbi Pinchas Peli in “Torah Today” suggests that Jacob’s evaluation “was meant to help his children find their proper identity. Such criticism of them would help them find their way toward the future, in which they were destined to assume the roles as heads of the tribes of Israel.”

With a different tack, medieval Spanish commentator Isaac Abravanel — cited in “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs” — sees Jacob’s discourse as his attempt to determine the best leadership for the future of the Jewish people. By characterizing his sons as he does, Jacob clarifies why he selects Judah.

Once again, the firstborn, in this case Reuben, does not receive what would be considered the birthright due to him. Why?

“He has birth, dignity, opportunity; but no strength of character,” according to the commentary in “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs.” For the Jewish people to thrive, Jacob must choose a leader based on qualities rather than birth order.

“The Torah: A Modern Commentary” proposes that Jacob’s testament is, “a bridge between the past and the future.” For the future of Israel, the shoulders of the giants must be strong indeed.

From the past, in the present, and into the future, conflict has and on some level undoubtedly always will surround siblings. Whether affected by birth order, parents, or inherent personalities, siblings need not be rivals.

Amy Kazilsky is director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.