Vayechi: I Know my Son I know….The Need to Trust a Tzaddik

by Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Shliach to Jacksonville, FL

A seasoned businessman, who for many years earned his living in the lumber industry, was getting on in age. He decided to turn his business over to his sons who were more than happy to step in.

Having little experience in this field, the novices were careful to consult their elderly father before every major decision. The father was eager to share his lifelong knowledge and expertise in this profession.

An opportunity had one day arisen for the brothers to procure 1,000 trees in a forest at what seemed like a very fair price. As usual, they sought the skilled guidance of their retired father. After listening to the proposal, the father inquired about three aspects before offering his advice:

“How far was the forest from the water?” To which they replied, a three day journey.
“How long did they have to clear the forest?” They advised that they had three years.
“What size deposit was required?” To which they provided the amount.

Their father’s final recommendation against the transaction did not bode well with them. As they left the house, one of the brothers dismissed his advice saying: “Father is apparently no longer thinking clearly. His age appears to have caught up with him. It is my contention,” concluded the brother, “that we ought to press ahead with the deal. I anticipate a hefty profit!” After a bit of contemplation the brothers agreed and proceeded with the purchase.

As it happened, a plague had broken out amongst the cattle of that country. Due to the shortage of livestock they fell behind schedule in hauling the timber to the water from where it was to be floated to its intended destination. One problem led to another, and their three year contract was up long before the lumber could be removed. The brothers lost their entire investment, and then some.

Disgraced, they returned to their father and cried: “Surely you are a prophet! You have correctly predicted the plague amongst the cattle!”

“Don’t be silly,” recounted the good-natured man, “I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. My many years of experience led me to know that this was not a good opportunity. I’ve witnessed the forfeiture of investment due to the distance between the forest and the river countless times before. The limited time allotted for you to clear the forest and the exorbitant down payment had further heightened my apprehension. Thus, I correctly advised against the endeavor.“

The dramatic events surrounding the deathbed blessings bestowed upon Yosef’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, appear to retain vast cosmic secrets regarding the future of the two burgeoning tribes. Moreover, this cryptic narrative seems to alert its reader to uncanny Divine insight and vision vis-à-vis the central figure of the narrative and purveyor of the blessings, our saintly forebear Yaakov.

When Yaakov was 147 years old, he sent word to his son Yosef that he was feeling ill. Yosef took his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and rushed over to visit his father. Although he was very weak, Yaakov strengthened himself in order to sit upright.

Given that he was not able to see very well, he asked Yosef who the children were. Yosef explained that they were the two sons born to him in Egypt, Menashe and Ephraim. Yaakov then indicated to Yosef that he wished to bless his two sons before he passed-on. In preparation of the blessings Yosef took Menashe and Ephraim and placed them in front of Yaakov.

Our Parsha continues to describe how Yosef positioned his son’s before Yaakov in a way that Menashe the older of the two stood across Yaakov’s right hand and Ephraim the younger opposite his left.

According to Jewish tradition the right side is considered the most dominant. Given the fact that Menashe was the older of the two, Yosef positioned him in front of Yaakov’s right hand so that he would receive the more prominent blessing. Ephraim who was younger was to be blessed with the left hand.

But to Yosef’s chagrin, Yaakov maneuvered his hands in such a way that his right hand ended up on the head of the younger son and vice-a-versa. Quite certain that his father switched his hands in error, Yosef attempted to redirect Yaakov’s hand, saying: ”Not so father, this is the older son, place your right hand over his head.“

Un-swayed by Yosef’s well meaning efforts, Yaakov refused to be corrected. He assured Yosef that he deliberately arranged his hands in that manner, stating: “I know my son, I know. Although the older brother, Menashe, will be great, the descendants of the younger Ephraim were to be even greater.”

This narrative gives rise to a number of distressing issues, not the least of which is the thought of yet another sibling rivalry. So much of our early history has been fraught with sibling dissonance and conflict as a result of one child currying more favor than the other. Haven’t we already witnessed the destructive results of preferential treatment on the part of parents? Have we not seen the consequence of tampering with the first born rights? Why does this scenario keep reoccurring within our ancestral family?

Most perplexing, however, is the notion that Yaakov would himself partake in this type of activity. The casualty of a bitter rivalry with his own brother, Yaakov was keenly aware of the ensuing pain and anguish. Himself the victim of an ugly competition among his own sons, he was clearly mindful of the untold misery and grief left in its wake.

Given the above, one might expect him to be more sensitive than to plant the seeds of further sibling discord in a new generation. Why would Yaakov of all people stir up more trouble, this time among his grandchildren?

It is quite plausible that this is precisely what was going through the mind of Yosef, the consummate victim of sibling enmity, in his passionate protest: ”Not so father! This is the older son; place your right hand over his head.“ In other words: ”Oh father, not again! Hasn’t this family suffered enough as a result of sibling rivalry?” But rather than address Yosef’s concerns, Yaakov seems to dismiss him with a “this is how it is” and “papa knows best” type of reply. What do we make of this bizarre phenomenon?

The deeper Chassidic interpretation regarding the essential qualities of Menashe and Ephraim can help decipher the puzzle.

Menashe, as the name implies, represents the ability to survive and overcome the hardship of adversity and exile, as Yoseph declared upon choosing the name: “G-d has made me forget my hardship.“ Ephraim, on the other hand, signifies the capacity and function of growing through pain and adversity – Galus: “G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

Accordingly, there was deep cosmic significance in Yaakov’s insistence that Ephraim be the principal recipient of the blessings. By this Yaakov set out to insure that it not sufficient to survive Galus – to endure and forget – but that we enjoy the capacity to grow and reap the rich rewards of the bitter exile.

“As much as I understand where you’re coming from,” insisted Yaakov, “as much as I share your passion for brotherly love and sibling harmony, there is something infinitely greater at stake here. The entire remuneration and bounty intrinsic to adversity and exile hangs in the balance.

You can be certain that of all people I share your frustration. Still, sometimes one must look at the bigger picture. Although from your vantage point my actions may seem unreasonable and even objectionable, it does not mean that there is not a deeper reality. Just because there is strife on the outside, does not mean there is not even greater love and good on the inside.”

True wisdom is to know that one’s own perception and paradigm is not the ultimate (Divine) truth, but rather the margins of one’s very own limitations and mortality. This knowledge is the means, the only means, by which these limitations can be straddled and transcended.

The dramatic narrative vis-à-vis the blessings that the ailing Yaakov bestowed upon Yosef’s two sons, contains fundamental insights regarding the need to have complete sub-ordinance and faith in a Tzaddik and to never question his judgment, even when it seems difficult and absurd. We are certainly never to steer his hand and (heaven forbid) twist his intentions towards our liking, even when we have the most high minded and noble intentions. We must follow his every directive at all cost notwithstanding the fact that we may be exceptionally wise and powerful like Yosef.

The name of our Parsha is “Vayechi” – And he lived, referring to the life of Yaakov. Yet in actuality it discusses his demise and the events that preceded his final days in this world. However, since the life of a Tzaddik is not defined by his physical existence but rather by his holy accomplishments and impact on humanity, the events in our Parsha represent Yaakov’s true and eternal legacy, notwithstanding their connection with his physical demise.

In fact, his final acts in the physical world are most reflective of his spiritual and eternal essence; hence it is specifically this final chapter of his life that is given the name Vayechi. It is likewise the chapter over which we chant the words: “Chazak. . .” Be strong, be strong and may we be strengthened!

Accordingly, the lessons derived from the blessing that Yaakov bestowed on Menashe and Ephraim, one of the final acts of his life, embodies his innermost legacy, his ultimate gift to his progeny. It is a message that contains the secrets of how to survive and prosper in Galus, despite its intensity, as well as, the key to the final redemption. May it be very soon with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.

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