Watching the drama unfold when Yaakov blesses Yosef’s sons in Parshat Vayechi (see Bereishit 48:13-22), two questions emerge: Why does Yaakov elect to bless Yosef’s sons (or Yosef himself, if you prefer) before blessing his older sons? And why does Yaakov switch his hands in such a way that his right hand is on Ephraim, the younger son, rather than on Menashe, the older one?
In order to answer these questions, we need to take a more global view of the Book of Bereishit, paying attention to two aspects or avenues of chosenness: bechora, lineage; and bechira, preference. Avraham has two sons – the bechor, Yishmael, is passed over in favor of the bechir, Yitzchak. Yitzchak’s bechor, Eisav, is passed over in favor of his bechir, Yaakov. (My father points out that the dramatic scenes surrounding Eisav’s sale of the birthright to Yaakov and the subsequent betrayal of Yitzchak are beside the point, because birkat Avraham was given to Yaakov anyway at a later point – see 28:3-4.)
The theme of bechira over bechora continues with the next generations. Yaakov chooses Rachel, the bechira, over Leah, the bechora. Thus, Rachel’s own bechor, Yosef, is his obvious favorite (see 37:3-4) and his choice for bechir over Reuven, Leah’s bechor. When it comes time to bless his own children, Yosef, by way of his children, is therefore blessed before Yaakov’s other children. (Notice in 48:15 that the Beracha is actually given to Yosef, not to his sons.) Within this blessing, Yaakov chooses to once again show deference to the bechir, Epharim, rather than the bechor, Menashe. Yaakov’s subsequent explanation for this choice (48:19) contains echos of the Yaakov/Eisav story, with the older Menashe cast as the new Eisav and the younger Ephraim as the new Yaakov. See the comparisons below, matching up the same-colored statements in the Yaakov/Eisav story (the first two sources) and the Ephraim/Menashe story (the third source):
(During Rachel’s pregnancy) בראשית פרק כה פסוק כג
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה לָהּ שְׁנֵי גוֹיִם בְּבִטְנֵךְ וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר
(After Yaakov receives first blessing) בראשית פרק לו פסוק לג, לז
וַיֶּחֱרַד יִצְחָק חֲרָדָה גְּדֹלָה עַד מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵפוֹא הוּא הַצָּד צַיִד וַיָּבֵא לִי וָאֹכַל מִכֹּל בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא וָאֲבָרֲכֵהוּ גַּם בָּרוּךְ יִהְיֶה
וַיַּעַן יִצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר לְעֵשָׂו הֵן גְּבִיר שַׂמְתִּיו לָךְ וְאֶת כָּל אֶחָיו נָתַתִּי לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים וְדָגָן וְתִירשׁ סְמַכְתִּיו וּלְכָה אֵפוֹא מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּנִי
(After Ephraim and Menashe are blessed) בראשית פרק מח פסוק יט
וַיְמָאֵן אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר, יָדַעְתִּי בְנִי יָדַעְתִּי, גַּם הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעָם, וְגַם הוּא יִגְדָּל, וְאוּלָם, אָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְזַרְעוֹ יִהְיֶה מְלֹא הַגּוֹיִם
In Yaakov’s implicit comparison of Menashe to Eisav and Ephraim to himself, coupled with his blessing them (ala Yosef) before the other brothers, there is a vision of the Jewish future which appears unrecognizable to us. It even appears that Yaakov envisioned another religious schism – גַּם הוּא יִהְיֶה לְעָם – which is understandable given that the firstborns Yishmael and Eisav each defected to create their own nation while each of their younger brothers became the head of the Jewish nation. The older Menashe and younger Ephraim would follow that same pattern, or so Yaakov assumed. Yet in actual fact, neither one of these two would come to define Jewish destiny for milennia to come, and neither would seem to emerge as the neuvo Yaakov or Eisav, the leader of the Jewish nation or of any other competing nation. What happened to Yaakov’s vision of the Jewish future, one in which the Jewish nation is presided over by Ephraim or his descendants while Menashe’s children form a nation that goes in a separate direction?
It turns out that Yaakov was right and wrong. His selection of bechira over bechora again was warranted, but it was not fulfilled in the way he envisioned. Instead, the chosen bechir and rejected bechor would both come from the same mother: Leah. Her first two sons, Reuven and Shimon, were written off the page of Jewish leadership. Her other two sons, Levi and Yehuda, earned the priesthood and monarchy respectively. Bechir triumphed over bechor once again, but both would come from the same mother, while Rachel’s own children are largely omitted from the remainder Jewish history. When Yaakov accepts Ephraim and Menashe as his bechir – אפרים ומנשה, כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי – he would be incorrect inasmuch as the actual new bechirim are none other than the other sons of Leah. It seems that Yaakov’s acceptance of Rachel over Leah is misguided: It is not bechira Rachel’s bechor who is chosen as the new bechir, but bechora Leah’s own latter two children in tandem.
In a remarkable twist of fate, the Haftarah for Vayigash allows us to come full circle:
ספר יחזקאל פרק לז פסוקים טז-יט
וְאַתָּה בֶן אָדָם קַח לְךָ עֵץ אֶחָד וּכְתֹב עָלָיו לִיהוּדָה וְלִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו וּלְקַח עֵץ אֶחָד וּכְתוֹב עָלָיו לְיוֹסֵף עֵץ אֶפְרַיִם וְכָל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו
וְקָרַב אֹתָם אֶחָד אֶל אֶחָד לְךָ לְעֵץ אֶחָד וְהָיוּ לַאֲחָדִים בְּיָדֶךָ
וְכַאֲשֶׁר יֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְּנֵי עַמְּךָ לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא תַגִּיד לָנוּ מָה אֵלֶּה לָּךְ
דַּבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יֱהֹוִה הִנֵּה אֲנִי לֹקֵחַ אֶת עֵץ יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר בְּיַד אֶפְרַיִם וְשִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל חֲבֵרָיו וְנָתַתִּי אוֹתָם עָלָיו אֶת עֵץ יְהוּדָה וַעֲשִׂיתִם לְעֵץ אֶחָד וְהָיוּ אֶחָד בְּיָדִי
Here Yechezkel is instructed to take two wooden tablets, writing on one of them Ephraim, representing Yosef, and on the other Yehuda. This is not a reunification of the sort that Yaakov envisioned, of a split between Menashe and Ephraim, but rather of a split between Yosef and Yehuda – the bechir of Yaakov’s children in toto and the bechir of Leah’s children in particular. These two competing visions of bechir would come to define a powerful schism in Jewish history: Yaakov’s choice for bechir as compared with the will of the nation.
In truth, Yaakov’s choice for bechir is less than clear. He seems to elect Ephraim to the position, but his blessing to Yehuda – ישתחוו לך בני אמך … לא יסור שבט מיהודה – also makes it clear that Leah’s youngest will achieve the monarchy, even while Levi appears to lose everything when he is harshly upbraided by Yaakov. Perhaps Yaakov envisioned that Rachel and Leah would each earn a bechir – Ephraim, as the last-born of the bechira Rachel, would earn the priesthood, while Yehuda, as the last-born and bechir from the bechora Leah, would earn the monarchy. Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef’s children is, after all, of a more spiritual nature than Yehuda’s (האלקים הרועה אתי מעודי עד היום הזה). Either way, history would judge Levi – and Ephraim – differently than Yaakov does. Hashem would accept Levi as the rightful heirs to the priesthood, as He explicitly states in Bamidbar 3:12, when the Levi’im replace the firstborn – the bechorim – as the priestly caste. Once again, bechir (Levi) supplants bechor. This time, however, one bechir – Levi – also replaces another bechir – Ephraim, who had been chosen for the priesthood before the bechorim took over temporarily at Makat Bechorot.
All of this is to say that the measure of chosenness in Jewish life and leadership is not a product of birth but of effort, not of chance but of toil. Not a single bechor in the Book of Bereishit is successful in earning Divine favor, and the tradition continues with the selection of Levi – the only legitimate bechir to be rejected by Yaakov – over the bechorim to serve as Kohanim to the nation.
This theme of bechora vs. bechira is a source of constant tension in the Book of Bereishit, and particularly in Yaakov’s own life. Yaakov fights with his father, his uncle, his sons, and ultimately even with Yosef about whether the relative merits of an individual should determine his superiority over the rightful lineage of another. When Yaakov tells Pharaoh that מעט ורעים היו ימי שני חיי, he is looking back at a lifetime of struggle largely over this very issue. He is vindicated by history when the final bechir, Levi, ultimately replaces the bechorim as Kohanim, and the remainder of Tanach clearly indicates a preference for bechir over bechor. (Three quick examples: Aharon’s younger sons supersede his older ones; Korach, whose father is next in line after Amram, is nonetheless supplanted by the cousin of his younger uncle to be the leader of Kehat – see Rashi to Bamidbar 16:1, ודתן ואבירם; and the youngest son of Yishai, Dovid, is chosen to be the first king.)
When Shmuel tells the Jews (Shmuel I 9) that having a king will cause them endless problems, the Jews respond strangely, לא, כי מלך יהיה עלינו. Malbim sums up the response – and the role of a Jewish leader – beautifully:
פירוש המלבים לספר שמואל א פרק ט פסוק יט
גדר המלך הוא הנבחר מן העם … לא אנחנו נהיה משועבדים אליו לעבדים, רק יהיה משועבד אלינו להנהיג אותנו לפי חק ומשפט
Ultimately, bechora is a provisional title, affording one the burden to prove himself justified in keeping it. For a bechor to maintain his title, however, he must also prove himself a bechir – a task that is far more difficult.