Vayigash: Honoring Rightly

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

That’s right, we’ve reached the dramatic climax of the story of Yosef
and his brothers, when Yehudah pleads on behalf of the younger brother
Binyamin and Yosef finally reveals himself as their long-lost sibling.
After a reconciliation with his brothers, Yosef sends them home to get
their father, Yaakov, who hurries to go down to Egypt to see the son
he thought was dead.

The Torah tells that that before Yaakov leaves the Land of his fathers
to go and join his son in Egypt, he makes grateful offerings to God,
who then appears to him with comforting promises:

“And Yisrael and all that was his set out and came to Be’ersheva, and
he made sacrifices to the God of his father Yitzhak. And God [spoke]
to Yisrael in visions of the night. . . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis 46:1-2)

The commentators notice that Yaakov gave thanks to the God of his
father Yitzhak, which would not be unusual, but for a previous event
near Be’ersheva. Back in Bereshit/Genesis 28, Yaakov has his famous
dream of a ladder to the heavens, during which God is self-revealed as
the “God of Avraham your father, and of Yitzhak.” The text actually
says Yaakov left Be’ersheva and was headed towards Haran, but still,
it’s significant that Yaakov has spiritual experiences at or near
Be’ersheva in both cases.

Not only that, but if you go back to Bereshit 21 and 26, you find that
Be’ersheva is the site of important events in the life of both Avraham
and Yitzhak, who, of course, are Yaakov’s grandfather and father,
respectively.

So the commentators have an implicit problem: why, if Yaakov goes to
Be’ersheva to make offerings to the God of his father, is “father” in
the singular? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make offerings to
the “God of his fathers, Avraham and Yitzhak?”

Rashi and others learn from this question that Yaakov makes his
prayers to the “God of his father Yitzhak” because the obligation to
honor one’s father takes precedence over the obligation to honor one’s
grandfather. As we discussed a few weeks ago for parshat Toldot, the
rabbis see the matriarchs and patriarchs of Genesis as fulfilling
various mitzvot, including honoring one’s parents, so perhaps they
imagine that Yaakov takes halachic (practical laws) into account when
making his offerings.

I see three points of applied wisdom from Rashi’s inference of the
honor of a parent taking precedent over the honor of a grandparent:

1) As we discussed a few weeks ago, honoring one’s parents is a
mitzvah which applies even after they die; this helps us understand
why the sages would see Yaakov’s act as one of honoring his father.
Rabbi Nachum Amsel, in his book “The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and
Ethical Issues,” points out that we can do this by mentioning them in
conversation and telling others what we learned from them – to which
I would add acts of ritual remembrance and charity.

2) Rashi’s comment, based on older sources, does not, of course, mean
that we don’t, as a mitzvah, honor elders other than grandparents; it
just means that one fulfills the first obligation first, as it were.
There is, in fact, a separate mitzvah to honor the living elderly,
given in Leviticus 19:32. That wouldn’t apply in Yaakov’s case; I
bring it up only to point out that honoring parents does not mean we
don’t honor others.

3) Given point #2, I see this halachic comment- about honoring parents
taking precedence over honoring grandparents- as pointing us towards
an awareness how one mitzvah affects another. Perhaps parents take
precedence over grandparents when doing acts of service because it may
be harder to honor (with actions) those who have both given to us and
disciplined us. In Yaakov’s case, it’s striking that he makes prayers
to “the God of his father Yitzhak” when Yitzhak was the parent who
favored his brother Esav. It might have been easier to pay honor to
the memory of the great ancestor Avraham, but the mitzvah is to honor
our parents, despite the complexity of the relationship.

Let’s be clear: in most cases, there is not a great conflict between
honoring parents and honoring grandparents. Furthermore, if Yaakov had
mentioned Avraham in his offerings, it probably would not have
diminished the reverence of his act. The commentators wish to make
this point because the language of the Torah demands explication, yet
given Yaakov’s complex relationship with Yitzhak, it’s striking that
he can, at this latter stage of his life, humbly recognize himself as
his father’s son. This is another dimension of not only the mitzvah to
honor one’s parents, but all mitzvot: in the doing there is great
learning.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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