Vayehi: (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

Vayehi: (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

History Depends on the POV

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Vayehi” brings the book of Genesis to a fascinating close. As a reading of this Torah portion reveals, there is a “doublet” within the story told here. Think “broken telephone” because the Torah was originally transmitted orally from generation to generation, and you know how that can change the details of a story.  God’s Word was in fact told from mouth to mouth, with a few scrolls – mostly Psalms — read aloud at the Temple on marketplace days (Mondays and Thursdays). It was eventually written down (not without opposition), and then compiled centuries later in the fear that the Living Torah – and Judaism with it — could be lost in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction. This is what I think about when Torah scrolls are saved from a fire at personal risk or wrapped around the body of a Holocaust survivor who managed to get it out of Poland.

So, simply stated, a doublet is a second telling of a story within a Torah portion; it probably differs from the first version in some details (the duplicate stories of Adam and Eve and then of Cain and Abel are two early examples of doublets within Genesis). In Vayehi specifically, there is an alternate or complementary (depending on how you look at it) version of the way Jacob/Israel asks his own son, Joseph, to bring his grandsons, Ephraim (the younger one) and Manasseh (the firstborn) to him for a blessing.

Some rabbis think these different versions were included in the final version of the Torah mainly in order to reconcile different perspectives (those of Northern Israel, associated with King Saul – its ten tribes all too soon conquered by the Assyrians – and Southern Israel, eventual home of King David). Harmony was the desired goal. Other rabbis believe that duplicate stories in the Hebrew Bible were written down at different times and by different authors, so naturally they had different perspectives.

In more “modern” times – the 19th century — four different “sources” were identified by biblical scholars. In my very first year of rabbinical studies, I was spellbound by Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? — a “who-done-it” approach to the compilation of the Bible.  Here the four sources are specifically defined as J (Yaweh), E (Elohim), P (Priestly) and D (Deuteronomomistic) [1]. Friedman lays out his basic issues very clearly, detailing in a logical, methodical way how each of these sources – from both North and South Israel, from the priests, and a final summation — contributed to a Torah composed of many genres and many documents and, indeed, the distillation of many traditions. Contributing to the final result were the numerous editors (called redactors) involved and eventually the final Redactor (like a General Editor).

However, to this day, many orthodox (and some very conservative) rabbis will not subscribe to this Deuteronomistic Theory. For them, the Torah was written by God (or possibly divinely revealed), and not a single word can be added or subtracted. Still others, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, consider the entire Torah “a midrash, an interpretation…formulated in response to ineffable encounters with God” as Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff described. Perhaps Heschel’s point of view (POV) says it all [2].

In any case, this is what happens in Vayehi, in the Torah as we read it today, when Joseph brings his sons (their non-Jewish mother is Asenath, the daughter of a high-ranking Egyptian priest) to his dying father’s bedside. In the two versions that appear here, his father is interchangeably called Jacob or Israel.

In the first of the doublets, “…Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. Then, when Jacob was told, ‘Your son Joseph has come to see you,’ Israel [this refers to Jacob] summoned his strength and sat up in bed.

“And Jacob said to Joseph, ‘El Shaddai [the Nurturer] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples; and I will assign this land to your offspring to come for an everlasting possession. Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt shall be mine; Ephraim and Manassah shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon. But progeny born to you after them shall be yours; they shall be recorded instead of their brothers in their inheritance” (48:1-6). Jacob then goes on to explain to Joseph that he is doing this because Joseph’s mother, Rachel, died while Jacob was on the road to Canaan, and that he buried her near Bethlehem (48:7).

Immediately after this first telling of the story, a second version appears in the text, thus creating the “doublet.” This version calls Jacob only by the name, Israel, the new name he assumed after his dramatic struggle with the “ish,” God’s messenger, who left Jacob with a perpetual limp to memorialize how he had altered spiritually. Then the story continues: “Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, ‘Who are these?’ And Joseph said to his father, ‘They are my sons, whom God has given me here. ‘Bring them to me,’ he said, ‘that I may bless them.’ Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age [recalling his own father Isaac’s poor vision when he was deceived by Jacob]; he could not see….(48:8)”

Then Israel embraces both boys, but when he blesses them, he surprisingly crosses his hands and blesses the children with his right hand on Ephraim’s head – the head of the younger son – and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, the older son. In other words, he reverses the older son/younger son in an inheritance battle that continues throughout the Hebrew Bible.

Why is this second version relevant to us today? Because – if we traditionally bless our children on the Sabbath as Jews are supposed to do – when we place our hands on our own children’s heads, we recite the last line of the blessing that Israel invoked when he blessed both of Jacob’s children: “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”

It is still troubling, though, that Israel/Jacob deliberately puts Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Not so, explains Rabbi Jonathan Sacks [3]. Israel/Jacob does that because of what the blessing says. It has nothing to do with birth order, with older or younger. At the time Manasseh was named, Joseph expressed gratitude that the birth made him forget all the previous troubles he suffered in his father’s house. But by the time his next son, Ephraim, is born, Joseph is able to look forward to a fruitful future, saying, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41: 50-52). So Israel/Jacob is accentuating the positive in giving his blessing, and maybe that’s what we should be doing for our kids now.

Maybe, though, what we also need as 2018 approaches is a third story to create a triplet, a third version, that includes a special biblical blessing for daughters as well when they traverse the land.

[1] Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Harper Collins, 1987).

[2] Elliot N. Dorff, “Medieval and Modern Theories of Revelation,” Biblical Religion and Law, 1404.

[3] Vayehi 5767, The Generations Forget and Remember, Covenant and Conversation, Jan. 6, 2007, http: Received Dec. 27, 2017.

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©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles 2017. All rights reserved.