I have always found Jacob to be the most fascinating person in the Torah. There is really no one else quite like him; he is a complex and devious character even in utero who endures a life of challenges and disappointments and is changed by them. When God appears to him in a dream and promises never to abandon him, the young Jacob announces, “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house–Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21) Twenty arduous years later, Jacob draws close to his homeland and speaks humbly to God: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff along I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” (Genesis 32:11) Jacob has grown from one who projects his own mistrusting nature onto God into someone who has become able to see God’s blessings even in the midst of the hardships he has endured.
On that night, as he prepares for a dreaded reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob enters into a wrestling match shrouded in mystery–even the pronouns are confused. Jacob emerges at dawn with a permanent injury and a new name: Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God. But even then, it can be difficult for him to shake off the deceitful nature of his youth. When Esau tenderly extends an invitation to Jacob to travel alongside his caravan, Jacob promises that his group will catch up to Esau, and then he heads in the opposite direction. The Torah alternates between the names “Jacob” and “Israel” for him, as if to suggest that he still vacillates between his old and new identities.
So much of Jacob’s life is shaped by the way his parents choose favourites between him and his brother. Esau is the beloved of his father Isaac, while Rebecca loves Jacob best. When he fathers twelve sons, it only seems natural for Jacob to choose his own favourite. Jacob’s gift of a special coat to Joseph starts his brothers on a path of hatred towards him that culminates in their kidnapping him and selling him off into slavery. And so the destructive pattern of choosing a favourite child above all others continues into the next generation.
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob draws near to the end of his life. Joseph hears that his father is ill and rushes his sons Menashe and Ephraim to their grandfather’s deathbed to receive his blessing. Perhaps Jacob shared the tale of how he in collusion with his mother managed to trick his father into blessing Jacob rather than his favourite Esau. Joseph knows that words have real power, and so he seeks to get his father to bless his two sons before everyone else. When Joseph brings the boys to his aged father, Jacob suffers a momentary memory lapse and asks his son who these children are. Joseph, perhaps concerned about his father’s faltering capacity, steers the boys under his father’s hands so that he will bless them appropriately: he places Menashe under his father’s right hand, since he is the elder and so should receive the greater blessing that comes from the dominant hand. The younger Ephraim is placed under his father’s left hand. Now all that is required is for Jacob to bless his grandsons with the proper procedure.
But that is not what happens. With great deliberation, Jacob lays his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Menashe’s head, thus crossing his hands. Joseph seeks to grab his father’s hands and move them to the correct position, but Jacob chides him, saying, “I know my son, I know.” Jacob tells Joseph he is acting on a prophecy that shows him that Ephraim’s descendants will be greater than Menashe’s, and we know this to be the case: the tribe of Ephraim becomes a major power in the kingdom of Israel. When Israel separates itself from Judah after the death of King Solomon, its kings are from the tribe of Ephraim.
But I have always held on to the idea that this act of crossing hands is also meant by Jacob to bring a measure of healing to a destructive legacy. Sibling rivalry in the book of Genesis goes all the way back to Cain’s brutal murder of his brother Abel. Abraham exiles his son Ishmael in favour of Isaac. Isaac embraces Esau over Jacob, while Jacob’s preference for Joseph over his brothers leads to decades of heartbreak. As Jacob crosses his hands, he declares to Joseph as well as to his two grandsons that the days of pitting brother against brother are over. Indeed, the next set of brothers we meet, Aaron and Moses, form a beautiful partnership. I like to believe that Jacob’s rebellion against the norms of the day play a part in leaving the antagonism between siblings behind. So often a radical break from the past is what is needed to assure a harmonious future. The book of Genesis, so full of conflict, ends peacefully with the death of Jacob, and so the scene is set for the twelve sons of Jacob to form the core of the people of Israel.
About the Author:
Shoshana Kaminsky is rabbi of Beit Shalom Synagogue in Adelaide, South Australia. She is also a CPE supervisor in South Australia and the mother of two sons who really seem to like each other despite the differences.