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A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene hulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.Web Site: http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/

A Father’s Testament to his Sons

Menahem Ben-Yashar The Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Research and Ashkelon College

Parashat Va-Yehi concludes Genesis, the book of Creation and the patriarchs, marking the end of the patriarchal era and the transition from a family to a people. This transition is embodied in the figure of Jacob, who of the three patriarchs was destined to build the people by siring twelve sons – the tribes; Jacob, whose additional name, Israel, embodies the kernel of the people of Israel.

In his testament, Jacob transmitted the heritage of the last generation of patriarchs to the first generation of the tribes comprising the nation. His testament has a chiastic structure: first comes his command to Joseph regarding burying Jacob in Canaan, then his announcement to Joseph about the future of the house of Joseph – the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh in the land of Canaan, then his prophecy to all the tribes about their future in the land of Canaan after conquering and settling the land, and lastly a reiteration of his command to bury him in Canaan; the second time, however, the command is addressed to all his sons. We see that the first two parts of this structure are addressed to Joseph alone, and the last two, to all of the tribes.

As we mentioned, the command to bury Jacob in the ancestral crypt in Canaan initially was relayed to Joseph alone, “since it was in his power to do so” (Rashi on Gen. 47:29-31, following Genesis Rabbah 96.5). Joseph must have applied great diplomatic skill to obtain Pharaoh’s consent to the removal of Jacob’s bones from the land of Egypt (Gen. 50:4-5). To this end, he even relied on the oath his father made him take; indeed, it was solely for this purpose that he made him give this oath.[1] Commanding all his sons in this regard (Gen. 49:29-32), however, was a matter of principal: all the sons/tribes would participate in bringing Jacob’s remains to Canaan for burial in the Cave of Machpelah. Even while enslaved in Egypt, the burial of the patriarchs and matriarchs would be a focus for their longings, hopes and aspirations.

The Road Not Taken

The mourning and funeral procession of Israel’s sons to Canaan was a sort of precedent and dress-rehearsal in anticipation of the future redemption procession of the Israelites to Canaan. This explains the wonderment about the route taken in the funeral procession. There are two reasonable routes to take from Egypt to Hebron: either along the Via Maris, i.e., along the coastal plain as far as Gaza, and from there east to Hebron, or through northern Sinai, continuing through the northern Negev, via Kadesh Barnea and Beersheba, on to Hebron. But we read that the funeral procession went through “Goren ha-Atad, which is beyond the Jordan” (Gen. 50:10). Why this long circuitous route? There surely was a political or military factor preventing them from taking a direct route, but the Torah is telling us that Jacob paved the way for his descendants, who would later enter Canaan by the same route: through Transjordan.

In his testament to his sons/the tribes regarding their future, when they would return from Egypt to Canaan (the inner pair of the chiastic structure) Jacob granted senior status to Joseph by first giving a special testament to him before the testament to the rest of the tribes. The testament to Joseph fills all of chapter 48 and includes five subjects: 1) dividing the House of Joseph into two tribes; 2) giving them senior status “no less than Reuben and Simeon”; 3) mentioning Ephraim before Manasseh; 4) mentioning Rachel’s burial; 5) referring to the city of Shechem. Aside from all this, Jacob also blessed Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:14-16).

Jacob began by mentioning G-d’s revelation to him at Luz, the same as Bethel, where He promised him: “A nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you” (Gen. 35:11), or as Jacob put it here, “making of you a community of peoples” (Gen. 48:4).[2] Thus Jacob could see himself as a “father of a multitude of nations” – a father who builds the nation out of the tribes, having the privilege of determining the number of tribes and their structure. Jacob, in giving Joseph two portions of inheritance in Canaan, in a sense was giving him the status of first-born, who inherits a “double portion” (Deut. 21:17). When Jacob said of Joseph’s two sons that they “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon” (Gen. 48:4), it meant they would be considered as if they had been born to Jacob himself, or that the first of Joseph’s sons would be considered the first-born, as if he had been Reuben. Perhaps that is how the author of chronicles understood it, when he wrote of Reuben, “He was the first-born; but when he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel” (I Chron. 5:1).

Joseph as Two Tribes

There seems to be another reason, however, why Joseph is considered as two tribes; this reason is intimated in Jacob’s earlier words to Joseph, prior to blessing the two sons: “I never expected to see you again, and here G-d has let me see your children as well” (Gen. 48:11). In other words, when Joseph disappeared from his father, his father considered him as dead, as erased from the tribes. But now, with Joseph reappearing to Jacob – as if a revival of the dead – he appeared along with two sons that had been born to him. Therefore, those two sons were henceforth considered Jacob’s two sons: “Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine” (Gen. 48:5). This recognition of Joseph’s sons is tantamount to an act of adoption[3] by Jacob, adoption that is confirmed in Jacob’s direct blessing to Joseph’s children when he laid his hands on their heads like a father to a son (Gen. 48:14-19). Perhaps this sort of adoption was to counterbalance the blot in the family background of Ephraim and Manasseh, for their mother, the daughter of a pagan priest and an Egyptian (Gen. 41:45), came from a nation characterized by illicit sexual practices, just like the Canaanites (see Lev. 18:3).

The Genesis Motif

In Joseph’s family, Jacob gave preference to Ephraim, the younger, over Manasseh, the first-born. This motif of preferring the younger is repeated throughout Genesis in particular, and throughout the entire Bible in general. The last instance in the biblical narrative is when David, the youngest, is chosen over all his brothers, and there an all-inclusive explanation is added: “For not as man sees [does the Lord see]; a man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart” (I Sam. 16:7). In this instance, and in all the other cases, the Bible tells us either directly or indirectly why the younger was preferred, whereas here, with Joseph’s sons, no reason is given and we are left to present our own hypothesis. It stands to reason that Manasseh, the first-born, was born early in Joseph’s marriage to the Egyptian Asenath, perhaps about eight years before Joseph made himself known to his brothers and was reunited with his father’s house. Manasseh was brought up by his Egyptian mother in an Egyptian environment, his father Joseph kept busy with managing the Egyptian economy. However the younger brother, Ephraim, grew up after Jacob’s family had come to Egypt, and they surely influenced his upbringing.

The Fourth Patriarch

Since Joseph was recognized as the first-born of his brothers and father of two tribes, in a way he can be thought of as a fourth patriarch, and his mother Rachel ought to have been buried in the Cave of Machpelah, along with the other matriarchs. Therefore Jacob apologized to Joseph (Gen. 48:7) and said that indeed she ought to have been buried there, but her sudden death while on the road made that impossible.

Nahmanides notes (at the end of his commentary on Gen. 49:7) that this was more than a technical explanation; Providence intended it that way as a matter of principal: it was not befitting to bury in the patriarchal crypt a man and his two wives who were sisters, that being contrary to the laws of the Torah (Lev. 18:18). Therefore only Leah, his first wife, was buried with Jacob, whereas Rachel was buried in a tomb of her own. Thus, the Israelites had a patriarchal burial place where three pairs of patriarchs and matriarchs lay, and another two burial places – one of the matriarch and the other of her son: the tomb of Rachel and the tomb of Joseph, who as we have said was like a fourth patriarch, father of the House of Joseph.

As a sort of fourth patriarch, Joseph was directly informed by Jacob of the destiny of the entire nation: “Then Israel said to Joseph, ‘I am about to die; but G-d will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers’” (Gen. 48:21). Before his death, Joseph would pass on this message to the rest of the brothers/tries: “At length, Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. G-d will surely take notice of you [Heb. p-k-d] and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Gen. 50:24). Using the same expression – p-k-d – Moses would later bring the tidings of Redemption to the Israelite elders during their bondage (Ex. 3:16), and the Israelites would have faith in the message, again using the word p-k-d (Ex. 4:31).[4]

The House of Jacob made one military conquest in the land of Canaan during Jacob’s lifetime: the city of Shechem (ch. 34), and this subject concludes Jacob’s special testament to Joseph: “And now, I assign to you one portion [Heb. shechem][5] more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow” (Gen. 48:22). Jacob’s sword and bow are the two fighters among his children – Simeon and Levi, who captured the city of Shechem and killed its inhabitants (Gen. 49:5), and ostensibly deserved to inherit the city which they conquered. However, due to Jacob’s reservations about their excessive violence (Gen. 49:5-7), Shechem was taken away from then and given to Joseph. Indeed, Shechem is centrally located in Joseph’s inheritance, between the land of the tribe of Ephraim and the land of the tribe of Manasseh; and paralleling what he said above about Rachel’s tomb, Jacob was hinting here to the parallel tomb, that of his son Joseph. Thus it says at the end of the book of Joshua (24:32):

The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred kesitahs from the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, and which had become a heritage of the Josephites.

“And which had become” – both the city of Shechem which had been conquered as well as the piece of ground that had been purchased (Gen. 33:18-19). So we see that both pieces of ground that were purchased by the patriarchs in Canaan served as burial places for the patriarchs: the field of Machpelah (Gen. 23) for the three patriarchs and matriarchs, and the field next to Shechem for Joseph’s burial place.

Last Will and Testament

Jacob’s testament to the House of Joseph is followed by his testament to the entire House of Israel, tribe by tribe (49:1-28), with tidings and prophecy of the future: “what is to befall you in days to come” (Gen. 49:1). “In days to come” means most plainly “after the present time.” Here, after your time in Egypt, during the first stage of settling the land of Israel, namely the period of the Judges, “Until he comes to Shiloh and the homage of peoples be his” (Gen. 49:10), i.e., until the beginning of the Davidic dynasty from the tribe of Judah. For about half of the tribes, these were favorable prophecies, actually blessings, although less favorable prophecies were made of Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Issachar. Also the prophecies about Dan and Gad were not the most encouraging, so that in the midst of them Jacob had to pray, “I wait for Your deliverance, O Lord!” (Gen. 49:18).

Jacob’s tidings to each tribe about what awaited them in the future, in the land of Canaan, serve to reinforce their assurance that they would indeed return there. This was aside from the individual blessings that Jacob gave each of his sons, as it says in Scriptures: “every one according to his blessing he blessed them” (Gen. 48:18)[6]; the Torah does not bother to tell us the details of these personal blessings.

As we mentioned, Jacob’s remains were brought to Canaan for burial, and there the return of his sons was awaited. Also Joseph’s burial in Egypt was accompanied by an oath to disinter his bones and bring them to Canaan when the period of bondage would be over (Gen. 50:25-26). In their deaths, both figures commanded their descendants life and bequeathed them tidings of redemption.

[1] According to Nahmanides’ commentary on Gen. 49:31. [2] Isaac had given Jacob a similar blessing, “so that you become an assembly of peoples” (Gen. 28:3), before the birth of Jacob’s sons, the tribes; hence we conclude that these promises do not relate to the period of the birth of Jacob’s children. [3] Not actual adoption, which is not recognized by biblical law. [4] See Exodus Rabbah 5.13. The Israelites’ belief in the message of redemption (Ex.4:31) is related in prose, therefore there is no repetition of the verb p-k-d. [5] Many commentators interpret the oblique Hebrew phrase, shekhem ehad al aheikhah, as meaning an extra portion over that of his brothers, and not as pertaining to the city of Shechem. It seems to me, however, that one should read this as the Septuagint and Targum Pseudo- Jonathan did, as pertaining to Shechem. Don Isaac Abarbanel ties this phrase to Joseph’s tomb in Shechem; the words, “with my sword and bow,” he interprets as referring to the price of one hundred kesitahs that Jacob paid for the field near Shechem, as opposed to the violence perpetrated by the real swords of Simeon and Levi to vanquish that city. [6] See Ibn Ezra on Gen. 49:1, and following him, Radak on 49:28, who, contrary to the masoretic markings of the cantillation signs, separates the words, “and this is what their father said to them,” referring to the above prophecies, from the continuation of the verse, which is about the blessings.



(C) 1999 Aish HaTorah International - All rights reserved. http://www.aish.com/


The final parsha in the book of Genesis contains Jacob's blessings to his twelve sons. He saves a special place for his beloved son, Joseph. He has a special blessing for him and for his sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. His blessing is well known but its meaning is far from clear.

Genesis 48:20

"And he (Jacob) blessed them (Ephraim and Menasheh) on that day saying: 'Through you (singular) shall the People of Israel bless, saying: May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.' And he placed Ephraim before Menasheh."


Through you shall the People of Israel bless - RASHI: When one comes to bless his children, he will bless them with their blessing. And a person will say to his son, "May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh."

In many homes it is customary for the father to bless his children on Friday evening with these words: "May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh." It would seem to be based on this Rashi.

There are several questions that come to mind as one looks at this verse and its Rashi-comment.


Rashi says, "When one comes to bless his children he will bless them with their blessing." What does he mean with their blessing? He was to bless them with the words, "May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh." Is that their blessing? That is not their blessing. Those words seem to mean your son should grow up to be like Ephraim and Menasheh. It's your son's blessing, not Ephraim and Menasheh's blessing. Why then does Rashi say "bless them with their blessing"?

A Question on the Verse: It says "He blessed them." Where does this verse contain their blessing? The verse speaks of "The People of Israel's" blessing, not Ephraim and Menasheh's.

To complicate matters even more, look above at verse 15. There it says: "And he blessed Joseph and he said..." Read the rest of that verse and you won't find any blessing for Joseph. It says rather "[may] He bless the lads," etc.

It seems like a lot of confusion.

Our Final Question: What's bothering Rashi that prompted this comment?

Hint: See the plural-singular usage here.


An Answer: Rashi notes the switch from plural, "And he blessed them" to the singular, "Through you (singular) shall Israel bless."

How does his comment deal with this? This is very difficult!


An Answer: Actually, the verse has to be read in two parts. "And he blessed them" refers to the blessing they received above in verse 15, where the lads were blessed. This, then, is their - Ephraim and Menasheh's - blessing. Rashi tells us that this is the blessing that a father is to give to his son – the blessing that Joseph's lads received. What was that blessing? That their forefather's names should be called upon them, and that they should multiply like the fish of sea.

Now the plural-singular discrepancy is cleared up. Through Joseph (singular) a child will receive their – Ephraim and Menashe's (plural) blessing.


We say, "May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh." Meaning not that the son is to be like Ephraim and Menasheh (whatever that could mean!), but that their blessing should be the same as that received by Ephraim and Menasheh.


The blessing that Joseph received (verse 15) was that his children, the lads, multiply like the fish of the sea. The ultimate blessing is that our children shall also have children who will follow in the ways of our fathers. As it says: "My name and the name of my fathers, Isaac and Abraham."

This is what Rashi is teaching us.

A verse that seemed self-evident was, on closer inspection, much more complicated - until Rashi clarified matters.


Keeping Promises

One sign of a good, honest person is that he keeps his promises. In this week's Torah portion, Joseph promises his elderly father, Jacob, that after he passes away Joseph will make sure Jacob is buried next to his ancestors in Hebron, and not in idolatrous Egypt (where they were currently living). Even though it was risky and difficult to approach the Egyptian king and get him to agree, Joseph did just that - in order to keep his promise and to teach us the value of keeping ours.

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In our story, a kid who wants to keep her promise faces a tough choice.


'ONE MORE DAY!' Liz smiled as she read the scribbly note her younger sister Gail had taped to her door. For the past week, the kid had excitedly been 'counting down' the days left until her birthday - and the days until Liz would take her out to the cool new pizza parlor, like she'd promised.

Well, why not? thought Liz. She liked her little sister (most of the time, anyway) and they both really liked good pizza.

The next day came around and Gail was bouncing around the house like a super-ball waiting for Liz to get changed so they could go on their big 'pizza-date.'

Then the phone rang. "Liz, it's for you!" Gail yelled "But talk fast okay - 'cuz we've gotta go!"

"Hi Liz, it's Tiff. You're never going to believe it. Jan's cousin works at the auditorium and he just called and told her there's five unclaimed VIP seats for this afternoon's Circus Amaze-Us show and he promised to give them to us free if we zip over there right now. I saved one last place in the car for you!"

Liz really couldn't believe it. The Circus Amaze-Us show was the hit of the season and even if you could afford the tickets - they were next to impossible to get.

She was about to say I'll be right over, when she felt a tug on her sweater. "Hurry up, Liz. It's time to go," Gail was pleading. Suddenly Liz felt torn in two and her tongue tied in a thousand knots.

"Hey, you didn't faint or anything, did you, Liz?" came the voice on the other end of the phone."

"Um, no - Tiff, I'm here. Just give me a second, okay?" Liz mumbled and turned to face her little sister's bright, expectant face.

"Um, Gail, you really want to go out now, right?"

"You bet! Let's go!"

"Yeah ... but I got this call now and I'm not so sure if... Maybe, do you think we could like go tomorrow instead?" Liz could hardly watch as her sister's face went from sunny to cloudy to stormy dark.

"Not go today? But Liz - today's my birthday, and I've been waiting so long."

"I know, Gail, but you see, my friends..."

"But you PROMISED!!!" The young girl started to cry.

"Liz? Where did you go? Are you coming or not?" Tiff asked. Liz wanted so much to go with her friends - yet she knew how much Gail was counting on her and she also knew from experience how bad it felt when someone promises something then backs out. She lifted the phone receiver that suddenly felt as heavy as a lead weight.

"Thanks a million, Tiff. You guys go have a great time - but I've got to pass." She thought she heard something like the words 'out of your mind' coming out of the phone as she hung up.

"Okay! Let's go!" Liz said, with as big a smile as she could manage.

The sisters got to the pizza parlor and as they ate Liz tried her best not to think about the amazing time her friends were having.

"Hey, there are all your friends," Gail said, pointing to the door. Liz turned and sure enough, Tiff and the crew were marching in, looking really down.

"What are you guys doing here?" asked Liz. "Aren't you supposed to be at the show?"

"We got there and not only were there no tickets, but the guy who was supposed to give them to us had gone home! Promises, promises, promises - you can't count on anybody nowadays, can you?" sputtered Tiff.

Liz nodded sympathetically while inside she felt so glad she'd shown her kid sister that she could count on her.


Ages 3-5

Q. How did Liz feel when her friend first invited her to the show?

A. She felt like she wanted to break her promise, and go with her.

Q. How did she feel in the end?

A. She was really glad she'd kept her promise to her sister.

Ages 6-9

Q. What life lesson do you think someone could learn from this story?

A. The way a person keeps his promises says a lot about what kind of person he is. Liz faced a tough choice, but she kept her word and not only made her sister feel good, but she felt good about herself, too.

Q. Is there ever a time it's okay not to keep our promises?

A. Though generally we should keep our word even when it's difficult, there could be times that we promise something seriously destructive, either under pressure or by mistake. In such a case, it's okay to back out. If we can, it could be worthwhile to first talk it out with someone whose opinion we respect.

Ages 10 and Up

Q. What do you think a person could do to avoid breaking promises?

A. One easy thing is not to make them in the first place. Some people who take their word seriously have a practice almost never to promise, but to say 'they will try, but they can't promise.' Of course this is no excuse to take what we say lightly and we should indeed sincerely try to do what we say we will.

Q. Is there a way a person could use promises as a tool to better achieve his goals?

A. Once we learn to take our promises seriously, if there is something we know clearly is the right thing to do but we know it will be hard to do -


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