Vayechi: Who is Worthy?

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayechi

“Then Yisrael saw Yosef”s sons, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ “ (Bereshit/ Genesis 48:8)

Good morning!

We’re concluding the Book of Bereshit, so it’s not surprising that the two main characters of the latter chapters die in this week’s Torah reading: first Yaakov, then, at the very end, Yosef, the second-in-command of all Egypt. However, the portion is mostly concerned with blessing: first Yaakov adopts Yosef’s sons as his own, blessing them, and then calls all of his sons to his deathbed to bless them and instruct them before he dies.

The scene at the beginning of chapter 48 reminds us of an earlier period of Yaakov’s own life: just as Yaakov’s father Yitzhak was nearly blind, and not quite sure which son he was blessing, so too now Yaakov is described (vs 10) as having eyes “heavy with age.” He seems unable to recognize his grandsons, asking, as in the verse above, who they are, as if perhaps he didn’t see them or isn’t sure if they are the grandsons he is offering to bless.

It’s possible that Ephraim and Menashe were dressed as Egyptian princes rather than Hebrew shepherds, or it’s possible that Yaakov was simply not able to see very well, but given that he’s just offered to bless them, it’s a bit odd that he doesn’t know who they are.  So many commentators take the verse above, ending with the question, “who are these?” as referring not to Yosef’s sons, but to evil kings who will descend from them, a vision which gives Yaakov pause.

One midrash, picked up by our friend Rashi, implies that Yaakov’s eyes were clouded, as it were,  because the Divine Presence withdrew from him as he attempted to bless Ephraim and Menashe, because of these future kings like Achav and Jehu who would descend from them. This is also a problem: why would some future wicked king impede Yaakov’s blessing of his grandsons? After all, any stain on their future history is also a stain on his. I think this is why Rashi splits this midrash up into two pieces: first he brings the text  about the Divine Presence withdrawing from Yaakov in the first part of the verse, but when Yaakov asks” “who are these [young men]?” Rashi interpolates “who are these who are unworthy of blessing?”

Yet that question- who are these who are unworthy of blessing? – could be read more than one way: it could refer to the midrash about Ephraim and Menashe’s evil descendants, or it could be a rhetorical question: who are these young men that we might deem them unworthy of blessing for something that is not their fault? Or, even more pointedly- who am I  to say that they are unworthy of blessing since their descendants are also my own?

Read this way, Rashi’s comment turns Yaakov’s question around: it’s not about some future event seen by prophecy, but about his own humility in offering blessings to his grandsons just as they are. It’s not  about their worthiness, but his own. When Yaakov asks: who are these [young men]?, he might be asking: who am I to dare withhold my blessing when I so brazenly took one that did not belong to me? Seen this way, Yaakov’s question becomes one for all of us: how dare we withhold our blessings from others, even if they are, just like the rest of humanity, imperfect people who do imperfect things?

In the midrash, Yaakov knows that Ephraim and Menashe will have evil men among their descendants, yet nevertheless blesses them and brings them close. So too, we will all encounter others, in our families and congregations and communities, who may have some flaw in them- as do we all- but our job is nevertheless to love and bless and raise up those around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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