Rough Road To The Birthright


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:33 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 47:28-50:26
Haftorah: I Kings 2:1-12
Havdalah: 5:37 p.m.

“Judah, to you shall your brothers give homage”  [Genesis 49:8].

The climax of Vayechi — and indeed of the entire Book of Genesis — comes in the death-bed scene in which Jacob (Israel) bestows blessings upon each of his sons, the future Twelve Tribes of our nation. The deepest biblical conflicts arose in the competition for birthright blessings. Now we face the question, which son of this last patriarch will receive the Abrahamic mission-covenant, and why?

God promised Abraham that “through him all the families of the earth would be blessed.” To achieve this, Abraham needed to ensure that the bearer of the birthright would have “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” [Gen. 18:19] as well as profound God consciousness and a commitment to the land and the mission of Abraham [Gen. 12:1-3]. When our story reaches the third generation, and Jacob is blessed with twelve sons, it seems that another qualification for leadership is added: the ability to unite the family.

Jacob thought that beautiful, brilliant Joseph, first-born son of his beloved Rachel, was the perfect candidate. However, Jacob’s favoritism began a process of familial dissolution which accelerated when Joseph reported dreams in which the whole family bowed down to him, as though he were their king [Gen. 37:3-9]. When Joseph brought back tales of his brothers’ transgressions to their father, he bred even more resentment in his siblings, alienating them from him and fatefully fracturing the family of Israel.

Joseph is sold into slavery. Jacob, suspicious of the role the brothers may have played in his beloved son’s “disappearance,” is wary of causing even more familial dissension by voicing his thoughts. The patriarch remains a disconsolate mourner in famine-stricken Canaan-Israel.

When the brothers come to Egypt to purchase food, the siblings are reunited. Joseph is hidden behind the aura of being the Grand Vizier, so his brothers are unaware of his presence. But we, the readers, are aware, and we see the potential for family reconciliation.

Now Joseph faces Judah, the other candidate for the birthright. Each protagonist has come a long way in developing the traits necessary for leadership. The episode with Tamar has taught Judah the importance of taking responsibility for one’s siblings and the family’s future, and it established his credentials as a paragon of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Joseph, too, has proven his moral rectitude by escaping the advances of Potiphar’s wife and developing greater modesty. But will Joseph or Judah succeed in repairing their broken family?

At the end of Miketz [Gen. 41:1-44:9], Joseph seems to have made a decision. He had given up on the brothers who cast him into the pit, and even on his father whose favoritism had set in motion some of the family struggles. Recalling how Jacob had rebuked him for his dreams and then sent him to find his brothers, Joseph may have even wondered whether the patriarch was part of the plot to get rid of him. Now, he wishes to spend the rest of his life in Egypt with his only true brother, Benjamin, child of the same mother Rachel, who was too young to have had any hand in the near-fratricide. Joseph may have thought, to blazes with my childhood family! I now have a new Egyptian family!

Initially, Judah thought that God was sending all the trials and tribulations to the brothers coming to purchase food in Egypt because they sinned in having sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But when Joseph rejects Judah’s proposal that all the brothers become his slaves on account of the stolen goblet, Judah wonders why they had been singled out in such a punitive fashion by the Grand Vizier. Who in Egypt might be out to get them? Unless, the Grand Vizier himself is actually Joseph!

Now that Judah thinks that he has uncovered the true identity of the “Egyptian,” he understands that he must find a way to bring Joseph back into the family. He must effect a rapprochement between Jacob and all of his sons, in such a way that everyone will understand the futility of dredging up history that could only exacerbate personal recriminations.

And so Judah faces Joseph, the Grand Vizier, ostensibly pleading for Benjamin’s freedom, but using the opportunity to describe their old father who deeply loved the two sons of Rachel, who still mourns for the Joseph that he believes has been killed by a wild beast [Gen. 44:28]. Not only does he disabuse Joseph of any suspicion that Jacob had been linked to the plot, but he also subtlety tries to impute guilt upon Joseph for not contacting his old, grieving father. How can Joseph now inflict further pain on the patriarch by keeping him from Benjamin?

By offering himself as a slave in place of Benjamin, Judah is also proving that he, who had initially proposed the sale of Joseph, had finally learned the lesson of brotherly love.

Judah succeeds. Joseph reveals himself and rejoins the family. Jacob-Israel and his children are reunited – by Judah, who has now proven that he is the most worthy recipient of the coveted birthright. n

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.