Self-fulfilling prophecies are often crucial to the birth of a people. When Jews bless their sons on Erev Shabbat, they say, “May you be like Ephraim and like Menashe”. Why not “like Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yakov”? After all, we bless our daughters that they be like the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah, so why not bless our sons that they be like the patriarchs? Why specifically Ephraim and Menashe?
One reason is that these two sons of Yoseph broke a cycle of brother against brother that had caused heartbreak and strife for generations. The stories of Cain and Avel, the sons of Noah, and the stories of the patriarchs are all shaped by discord rooted in brotherly rivalry. Israel could not become a people until this rivalry was ended.
The war of first-borns against their brothers is a kind of class struggle. The first-born was traditionally the inheritor of his father’s possessions and life-work. He was the one who would carry his father’s legacy forward. The position of first-born was a given: only one son could occupy it. The Torah itself enshrines this tradition: the firstborn is the primary inheritor of any family wealth, history, and traditions. He is also the family priest, who offers sacrifice on behalf of his family.
And yet, the later institution of the priesthood as a replacement of the firstborn-as-priest is already a pointer in the direction of disinheriting the firstborn.
Further, there are hints throughout the Torah that the inheritance of the firstborn has exceptions. Avel’s sacrifice is accepted; Cain’s is not, even though Abel is the younger of the two—a subtle hint that he is more worthy to “inherit” the family’s contact with God than his older brother.
This is even more blatant in God’s command to Avraham that Yitzhak be his heir, against Avraham’s will. But of course, one could argue that in Avraham’s case, God explicitly commands a break with tradition, thus reinforcing the tradition itself. After all, if it’s the accepted way of doing things, there’s no need for a command. As with the commandment to kill Amalek, this is a one-time exception to the accepted practice, not to be taken as the basis for future behavior, let alone as a basis for morality.
But in the case of Yaakov and Esau, there is no divine command. Rivka is given a prophecy, which, in the way of oracles, can be read in either of two ways: “the elder will serve the younger,” or, “the elder, the younger will serve.” The actual choice of who was to inherit lies with her. For whatever reason, she concluded that Yaakov was the chosen one, against all tradition and custom.
The direction of development is clear, while Avraham was commanded to choose the younger over the elder—despite social conventions—Rivka makes the choice on her own, based only on a divine hint (not command). In the case of Ya’akov’s choice of Yoseph, and of Yoseph’s own younger son, even the divine hint is absent; it is purely a human choice.
Exceptions that prove the rule
And so, while the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the aggadic (narrative) portions of the Torah provide the opposite lesson. Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe. What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?
One lesson (as discussed more fully in an earlier essay) is that, yes, there is a rule of how we are to do things. Yes, our interactions are meant to fit a certain framework, and in the absence of pressing need, that framework is not to be lightly put aside. But sometimes a situation arises that simply doesn’t fit the framework. The eldest son is not the most suited to inherit. The most promising child is the younger. Or is female. In that case, the aggadot give us a hint: Do as I do, not as I say! You have My permission to go out of bounds, so long as you acknowledge the line as you step across it, so long as you understand that this is an exception and not the rule.
These exceptions do not constitutes the educational basis of behavior. They are permissible for the outliers, the more mainstream behaviors are those which reinforce a particular life-affirming and life-generating culture. Clearly, favoritism is not conducive to peace and would be disruptive of society if it were to become the norm. Thus, any exception to the rule of firstborn inheritance must be done quietly, and with full acknowledgment that a line has been crossed. It is not to be considered a precedent or something to be emulated.
The flattening of hierarchies
But there is a further lesson in this—the story of Am Yisrael’s evolution from family to nation reveals a gradual demotion of castes and hierarchies. It is a fitting motif for a people made up of escaped slaves.
But this break with societal norms and hierarchies may be rooted in older traditions. R’ Yoel Bin Nun speculates that the term “Ivri” (Hebrew) means “misfit”, or “law-breaker”. He suggests that our ancestors earned this appellation through breaking one particularly sacrosanct law of the ancient Near East: the requirement to return a run-away slave to his or her masters.
R’ Bin Nun’s suggestion makes sense given much of our later legislation and national ethos. In particular, it may explain the tension between societal order written into the Torah and the stories that hold up subversive iconoclasts as those worthy of emulation.
But a people that refuses to surrender escaped slaves is likely to accrue a variety of run-aways and misfits over the generations, and might easily fall into a caste system of their own.
The true miracle is that they do not. They learn to fight against hierarchies and castes by relegating what would have been the societal elite of the times to an easily controlled—and subordinate—priesthood. The priests are elevated, yes, but, as opposed to their position in Egypt and Sumeria, in Israelite society they are forbidden to own land, and thus cannot add material wealth to their spiritual elevation. They are limited by the very law which gives them their prestige. The priestly code is spelled out in great detail in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus); everyone can read the code for themselves and judge whether Israel’s priests are carrying out their charge properly. They are subject to checks and balances, to transparency.
And so we come back to Ephraim and Menashe, the grandsons of the patriarch Yaakov and the sons of Yoseph, now a powerful governor in Egypt “second only to Pharaoh”. Ephraim and Menashe could easily have broken with their grandfather’s culture. After all, they were the sons of history’s first “assimilated Jew”! And yet, the fact that Yoseph brought them to his father to receive his blessing is the ultimate sign of reconciliation. Regardless of Yoseph’s own isolation from the family, his children would be full-fledged members of the tribe.
What’s more, they mark the first generation where the iconoclastic preference for the younger over the elder evokes no rivalry or ill-will. From now on, the exceptional cases are not only tolerated, but embraced. In the next story we hear of brotherly relations, Moshe will be placed before his elder brother Aharon in the divine favor. And yet, God tells Moshe, “your brother Aharon has set out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice.” No hint of rivalry or ill-feeling.
And so, Ephraim and Menashe are the great reconcilers. With their (re)admission into the line of Yaakov alongside their father’s brothers, the brotherly discord that marked the first three generations of patriarchal history comes to an end. And so we bless by Ephraim and Menashe, the reconcilers, because only so can we also fulfill the promise made to Avraham—”By you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
1. The same may hold true for mamzerut; the original law is there for a reason — it is a natural outgrowth of the notion that paternity matters. And yes, it does support a very paternalistic society. But so long as that is the type of society that we’re trying to support, such rules have their place. And yet, what if something happens that does not violate the rule in spirit, but does violate it in practice? What do we do with the exceptions. Here again, we have the aggadata to guide us.
The case of Amalek is even more stark. We are not meant to model our behavior on the command to kill an entire nation. After all, we are also told how we are to wage war: even in an era when genocidal war was the norm, certain rules were to be adhered to, including the unprecedented rule against rape. If we are to learn anything from the Amalek command, it is that drastic situations may require drastic measures, but that this is the exception which proves the rule.
2. I heard this lovely insight from Rav David Ish-Shalom.