This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi: Genesis 47:28 to 50:26.
Meet Joseph’s sons, the fifth generation of our people. Every Friday night, when we bless girls to be like the Matriarchs, we bless boys to be “like Ephraim and Menashe.” Why these two?
The first Hebrew family had long defied convention, passing over the first-born to give a younger child the best blessing: Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, then Joseph and Judah over their older siblings.
This week, while making them each a tribe, Grandpa Jacob blesses Ephraim over big brother Menashe. This could have caused a rift, but no rivalry is recorded. As Torah’s only serene siblings, they’re role models for the next generation.
Last year on Shabbat Vayechi, my daughter Sara became bat mitzvah. Her d’var Torah raised good questions about maintaining versus breaking with tradition, while also touching on power,
corruption and complicity.
She was fascinated by the account of Jacob crossing his hands to favor the younger. Though Joseph tried to intervene, Jacob was determined. Did Jacob see Ephraim as smarter, more of a natural leader or otherwise more deserving? Maybe. Or, perhaps, Jacob simply saw more of himself in Ephraim than in Menashe.
Sara observed: “If Jacob favored the grandson who was more like him, then he makes it all about Jacob. And really — is that the kind of leader we want, someone who makes it all about himself?”
To help discern whether an action is right, she gave three-fold advice. First, “if it’s all about you, that’s not good. You should always be thinking of others, and how your decisions affect them.”
Second, when we bestow extra benefits to people who look or act like us, that’s discrimination — so “never discriminate or show favoritism.”
And, think long term, “about what harm your decision may cause, in addition to the good, and figure out if it’s worth it.”
Joseph, Pharaoh’s number two, provides a leadership case study. He foresaw a looming famine, and successfully prepared Egypt for it. (Today, with clear evidence that climate change exacerbates famines, floods and fires, our leaders should prepare, too).
Yet Joseph’s plan shrewdly served his boss, turning farmers into serfs. His economic policy centralized power, making it all about Pharaoh and his viceroy. Thanks to Joseph’s actions, future Pharaohs practiced slavery and genocide, unopposed — ultimately, against Joseph’s own progeny.
This year at our congregation, we’re learning commentary from the standpoint of those historically denied power or visibility. The impetus was reading “Womanist Midrash” by the Rev. Wil Gafney, a Hebrew Bible scholar, Howard Divinity School grad, and dear friend.
She teaches that when Joseph forced Egyptian commoners “to sell everything they own to buy food, including their own bodies, he sets up the slave-making system that will enslave his own descendants.”
That’s Menashe and Ephraim, who are also Egyptian through their mother, Osnat, with the rest of their Israelite family. Thus, as we’ll see next week in Exodus 1, “there will be Egyptian blood on both sides of the slave divide.”
Yes, enslavement hurts oppressors, as well as freedom-seekers. Everyone suffered when avadim hayinu — we became slaves in Egypt — all because self-centered rulers acquired absolute authority, and others acquiesced.
Today, let’s all practice humility, and vigilance, instead — ensuring that it’s not all about us, or anyone.
And never play favorites among children; don’t discriminate; and do no harm.
Questions for discussion
Where else does our tradition foreshadow “checks and balances?” (Maybe the first “three branches” were prophets, kings, and priests?)
What previously marginalized voices should we seek out? (Youth? Poor People? The Earth?)
Fred Scherlinder Dobb is rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda and chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.