This chapter of the Torah includes several major transitions
- The focus shifts from the individual matriarchs & patriarchs to the Jewish people as a whole.
- It’s the first time that the name “Israel” refers to the entire community in addition to Jacob.
- It also contains the first mention of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Chapter 37:29-31 And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your steadfast loyalty: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” He replied, I will do as you have spoken.” And he said, “Swear to me.” And he swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed.
And shortly thereafter, Chapter 48:1-2 “Some time afterward, Joseph was told. “Your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to see you, Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.”
Both of these were conversations which took place between Jacob and Joseph only. Jacob proceeds to tell Joseph who among his sons will inherit and what it is they will inherit.
After he tells Joseph how things will be, Jacob turns his attention to Joseph’s sons, who had accompanied him but remained silent during the preceding conversation. Israel asked, “Who are these?” And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” (Chapter 48:9-10)
- Didn’t Israel just adopt them? How is it possible that he didn’t recognize them? Some commentators suggest that he didn’t recognize his grandsons, because they were indistinguishable from other Egyptian youth.
- Tradition has it that Manasseh and Ephraim reassured their Grandfather about their connection to the Israelites by reciting the Sh’ma and thus affirming their belief in the same God as their ancestors.
- So Israel bestows his blessing on each of them. I’ve often wondered whether he blessed his young, assimilated grandsons out of conviction that they would continue to practice Jewish life…. or out of a deep hope that they would.
- The issue of assimilation, then, is one that appears throughout our people’s story. Grandparents often wonder whether their grandchildren will continue to be Jewish. But what exactly does “be Jewish” mean?
- Rabbi Laura Geller asks why we bless our sons in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh. Perhaps, she says, "because these are the first two siblings in the Bible who do not fight. With Ephraim and Manasseh, the family pathology that unfolds in the Book of Genesis, in which siblings struggle with each other, finally comes to an end. They teach us that we do not have to fight over blessings: there are enough of them to go around."https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/va-ychi/how-shall-we-bless-those-who-come-after-us Source: Rabbi Laura Geller quoted by Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff (
So we have 2 significant changes addressed here – one of descendants living among non-Jews; and one showing a change in family dynamics – brothers who don’t fight.
And then Jacob calls all his sons to him.
He describes each son’s behavior and predicts what will happen to that son and his descendants. This section contains examples of both dysfunctional behavior – AND behavior to emulate.
- Jacob continues to show favoritism to Joseph by giving his sons each a full share in his inheritance
- Just as he cheated Esau out of his inheritance; he does the same thing by favoring Ephraim over Menasseh.
- The predictions about the future of some of his sons’ tribes focus on negative outcomes
But there are definitely some behaviors we can replicate in our own lives:
- According to one of the commentaries in Etz Hayim, even though Jacob is displeased with his sons’ behavior, "he does not curse his sons, he curses their unacceptable behavior.”
- Rabbi Edward Feinstein, at the American Jewish University, points out: “What's remarkable is that they're all present -- the beloved Joseph, the might Judah, inept Reuven, tempestuous Simon and Levi. All have a place in the family. Abraham had but one blessing: Isaac was chosen, Ishmael was cast out. Isaac had but one blessing: Jacob was favored, Esau rejected. But Jacob is different. Jacob finds words for each of his sons. Some of the words are encouraging, some critical. But each son is included. Each is gathered in. Each belongs to him.”
- And after Jacob’s death, Joseph is approached by his brothers, who fear that Joseph will be vengeful towards them. Joseph declines to do so, saying that he is not God and that some good ultimately came out of them selling him into slavery.
Which brings us to the topic of legacy.
“Our legacy, impact, and ability to improve the world are only as strong as the values we transmit to our children. We cannot ensure that our children will honor our memory, but it is up to us, like Joseph, to honor them by linking them with their past, and by giving them the responsibility and the trust to recreate and to reform Judaism in their own image.” (unsigned comment, URJ Torah Talk site)
Like Joseph, we stand between our parents and our children. The stories we tell, the customs we integrate into our lives, the behaviors that are an integral part of the fabric of our lives – all are significant aspects of the transmission of Jewish identity l’dor v’dor / from generation to generation.
What are some of the Jewish behaviors and values that we would like to help transmit to the next generation?