Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 2 January 2021 / 18 Tevet 5781

Parashat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The Younger Brother Will Be Greater

When Yosef presents his two children, Menashe and Ephraim, before his father for a blessing, Yaakov deliberately places his right hand — which Yosef assumed would be designated for Menashe, the elder son — on the head of Ephraim, the younger son. Yosef protests: Not so, my father, for this one is the first born. Place your right on his head. But Yaakov refuses, explaining, I know it, my son… He too will attain greatness. However, his younger brother will become greater than he…”

This is not the first — or last — instance of the younger brother preferred to the first born. From the very first pair of brothers — Kayin and Hevel — we find divestment of the first born. Hevel’s offerings were pleasing to G-d and Kayin’s were rejected. Of Noach’s children, Shem was not the eldest. Among Avraham’s sons, Yishmael gave way to Yitzchak. Among Yitzchak’s sons, Eisav gave way to Yaakov. Among Yaakov’s sons, Reuven gave way to Yosef. Among Yosef’s sons, Menasheh gave way to Ephraim. The main dominion among the tribes was given to Yehuda. Moshe, too, was the younger brother, and David was the youngest of his brothers. Moreover, the first born throughout Israel forfeited their status in terms of service in the Temple.

The first born is entitled to special privileges and is endowed with certain material rights. Reuven’s status as first born is described as privileged in rank and privileged in power. He is given a double portion of the inheritance. Power and spirit should go hand in hand, but historically they have not. Instead, a struggle between material power and Divine spirit rages. Until they can co-exist, physical prowess and spiritual power must be separated from each other. This will continue until the time when the elder can serve the younger, as prophesied to Rivka. A time when the physical and political might will be subordinate to the spirit. Until then, material power imagines itself to be the superior, but the truth is that it is always mastered.

The two crowns of power and spirit will ultimately be reunited in the Messiah, who will be king and priest, signifying the peaceful union of material and spiritual inheritances.

  • Sources: Commentary Bereishet 48:19

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