By Dr. Meir Tamari
It is easy to understand that the birthright was taken away from Reuven, because of inappropriate behavior regarding Bilha. The Avnei Nezer, however, [in a manuscript published separately] queried as to why the birthright was given in this parshah to Yosef, who was after all not a bechor. When we analyze the nature of the bechor we see that by definition, he is completely independent and has no connection to anyone else. There were never any sons before him and the later ones had not yet been born at the time of his birth. Without this independent and unconnected characteristic, one cannot be a bechor It is true that Reuven had done teshuvah; busying himself with his sackcloth and his prayer over a long period. This should have earned him forgiveness and thereby ensured the birthright. However, taught the Avnei Nezer, the verse telling us of his forgiveness- "Live Reuven and do not die" (Devarim, 33: 6), is immediately followed in verse 7 by, "and this, to Yehudah". Here we see that Reuven's teshuvah only came about at the initiative of Yehudah and only because of his intervention. This lack of independence and inability to stand alone, makes Reuven unfit for the bechora. Yosef even though he was not physically the bechor of Yaakov, nevertheless earned this because throughout his story he stands alone. For 22 years he had no connection with his brothers. Furthermore, even when he still was in his father's house, he had no relationship with them and they had no influence on him. In Egypt he was completely alone physically and spiritually. Despite this lack of connection, he was still able to remain steadfast in his religiosity and maintain the level of his sainthood. The strength and power of his independence is the justification for the bechorah.
It is in the nature of offspring to have the characteristics and nature of those who gave birth to them. Like Yoseph, Yacob had been careful to keep himself separate and independent of his surroundings. For all of the 20 years spent in the house of Lavan, he and his family were uninvolved with their affairs and completely separate from the members of that household. HaShem told Lavan not to talk to Yaakov and the Zohar sees this as applying to all the years. We see the many hours Yaakov spent by himself out in the fields and read of the distance and separation that existed between the family of Lavan and their sisters Rachel and Leah. There is even no attempt by Yaakov to make gerim of the people of Haran, as Avraham and Yitschak had done in their sojourn. They were all liars and cheats and he had no wish to be connected to them even for that purpose.
This common feature distinguishing Yaakov and Yosef, enable us to understand the longwinded verses, ( Bereishit 48:5-6), in which Yaakov passes on to Ephraim and Menashe the two portions normally belonging to the first-born son. It would have been sufficient to simply tell us that they would inherit two portions of the Land of Israel just as Reuven and Shimon. However, Yaakov was explaining that just as all his sons had been born separate from each other and completely independent of the house of Lavan, so too these two sons of Yosef had been born while he was independent of the rest of the house of Yaakov and of Egypt. In this way they were spiritually equal to the 12 tribes, with whom the Lord had made a covenant that they would never be destroyed. However, the other sons of Yosef who were born to him after the arrival of the House of Israel would simply be included in the 70 souls that came down to Egypt. They would simply share in the inheritance of Ephraim and Menashe, just as the others would share in the inheritance of the founders of the tribes.
There is a refinement that needs to be added to the merit of independence and separation. This we may learn from the midrash that understood the verse, "He will bless the youths", [Ephraim and Menashe] to refer to Yehoshua and Gideon. Yehoshua is referred to as a youth (Shmot, 32:11) as is Gideon (Shoftim, 6: 13.)
Menashe was so named by Yosef because G-d had enabled him to forget his father's house. Shall we say that Yosef wished to forget his great father or the spirituality of his house? Rather, this was meant as thanks to HaShem who had given him the power to continue in righteous ways even though the he had no longer any connection with his father's house. Gideon was descended from Menashe and inherited this merit of independence in thought and action, and the ability to stand alone. He challenges Hashem to redeem Israel from Midian as He did from Egypt. That this indeed meritorious we learn from the reply of the angel to Gideon. “Go in this, your, strength”. Yehoshua is descended from Ephraim, so named because G-d had made Yosef fruitful even in a strange land. Yoshua stands in relation to Moshe as the moon is to the sun; he reflected the greatness of Moshe even as the moon reflects the glory of the sun. We would imagine that the merit of Gideon and Menashe would be greater than that of Ephraim and of Yehoshua, who only reflected the glory of others. Yet we see that Yaakov placed Ephraim before Menashe. And the sun stood still for Yehoshua just as it did for Moshe. The redemption brought about by Gideon was only a temporary one, lasting 40 years, whereas that of Yoshua was eternal. Yoshua brought Israel into the Land of Israel and apportioned it amongst the Tribes.
Yehoshua was a wise man and a chacham as distinct from a talmid chacham; Yehoshua ben Nun, the son of Navon, as though wisdom had given birth to him (Ramban, Shmot, 33:11). To him was given the promise, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from you out of your mouth” (Joshua, 1:8). Yet he knew how to humble himself before Moshe and to recognize that his greatness surpassed his own. Chazal in many places, tell of how he diligently served his teacher. To have a greatness of one’s own, able to stand alone, and yet to know and to recognize that others have even greater knowledge and spirituality, is a greater merit than that of independence of thought and actions. So Yehoshua is greater than Gideon and Ephraim precedes Menashe.
This discussion is especially pertinent to the whole school of Phshyscha, since they all placed emphasis on the importance of having independent thought and action. All the teachers of this school saw as ridiculous and even dangerous, all forms of slavish imitation and religious actions that merely followed that of others. To his father’s rebuke that he should have followed in his footsteps in the choice of a teacher, the young Menachem Mendel of Kotsk is supposed to have replied, “This is My G-d and I will praise Him; the G-d of my father …….”. However, he pointed out that the only person described in the Torah as humble, is Moshe. True humility is that of the person of the stature of Menashe, who is able to stand alone yet, who, like Yehoshua and Ephraim is able to submit to the greatness of another.
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.
Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.