Given the choice between an heir and a spare, God will always pick the spare. If the theme of the first book of the Hebrew Bible is the election of the twelve tribes of Israel then the sub-plot is the rejection of the first-born. Unlike Greek mythology and its oedipal complex, the story of the choosing the tribes of Israel revolves around sibling rivalry more than parental passion/aggression.
God chooses Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s, Isaac over Ishmael[i] and Jacob over Esau. Going forward, Moses is selected over Aaron and David over a bunch of older siblings. To paraphrase Adam Sandler: “all spares”.
The first choice of Abel over Cain ends in the first genocide, the last choice of Joseph’s second born is recounted at the end of Genesis and provides a welcome conflict resolution and a valuable lesson.
The lesson is clear. The opposite of chosen is not rejected. The opposite of Chosen is Entitled. If the Jews were singled out as a Chosen People, it is not because they were exceptional; it was because they lacked all class title or land title, all prior rights or natural rights. The Chosen People are the personification of the unentitled and dispossessed.
In our liturgy, we recite many blessings, but besides the Priestly Blessing, there is only one blessing that is of biblical origin. It is the blessing which parents bless their children on a weekly basis and it makes no sense unless one understands it within the context of entitlement reform. It is a blessing that contains within it the simple message to every child (and therefore, I suggest, appropriate for daughters too).
“Child, nothing in this wonderful world is yours by right or by privilege. You must earn your blessings and learn to respect those who earn their blessings, even if they outperform you” “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh”
Here’s the back story of this simple blessing in Genesis 48
1 And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Joseph: ‘Behold, thy father is sick.’ And he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. [in that order]
5 And now thy two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine.
10 Now the eyes of Israel [Jacob] were dim for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them.
13 And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near unto him.
14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Manasseh’s head, guiding his hands wittingly (literally; with Sechel – common sense); for Manasseh was the first-born.
15 And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk, the God who hath been my shepherd all my life long unto this day,
16 the angel who hath redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads; and let my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’
17 And when Joseph [Firstborn of Rachel and apple of his father’s eye] saw that his father was laying his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it was evil in his eyes, and he held up his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head unto Manasseh’s head.
18 And Joseph said unto his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put thy right hand upon his head.’
19 And his father refused, and said: ‘I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; howbeit his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations.’
20 And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh.
וַיְהִי, אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף, הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה; וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנָיו, עִמּוֹ–אֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה, וְאֶת-אֶפְרָיִם
וְעַתָּה שְׁנֵי-בָנֶיךָ הַנּוֹלָדִים לְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, עַד-בֹּאִי אֵלֶיךָ מִצְרַיְמָה–לִי-הֵם: אֶפְרַיִם, וּמְנַשֶּׁה–כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן, יִהְיוּ-לִי
וְעֵינֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבְדוּ מִזֹּקֶן, לֹא יוּכַל לִרְאוֹת; וַיַּגֵּשׁ אֹתָם אֵלָיו, וַיִּשַּׁק לָהֶם וַיְחַבֵּק לָהֶם
וַיִּקַּח יוֹסֵף, אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם בִּימִינוֹ מִשְּׂמֹאל יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-מְנַשֶּׁה בִשְׂמֹאלוֹ מִימִין יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיַּגֵּשׁ, אֵלָיו
וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם, וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר, וְאֶת-שְׂמֹאלוֹ, עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה: שִׂכֵּל, אֶת-יָדָיו, כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה, הַבְּכוֹר
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֹּאמַר: הָאֱ-לֹהִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו, אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק–הָאֱ-לֹהִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי, מֵעוֹדִי עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל-רָע, יְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי, וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק; וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ
וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף, כִּי-יָשִׁית אָבִיו יַד-יְמִינוֹ עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם–וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינָיו; וַיִּתְמֹךְ יַד-אָבִיו, לְהָסִיר אֹתָהּ מֵעַל רֹאשׁ-אֶפְרַיִם–עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אָבִיו, לֹא-כֵן אָבִי: כִּי-זֶה הַבְּכֹר, שִׂים יְמִינְךָ עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ
וַיְמָאֵן אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר יָדַעְתִּי בְנִי יָדַעְתִּי–גַּם-הוּא יִהְיֶה-לְּעָם, וְגַם-הוּא יִגְדָּל; וְאוּלָם, אָחִיו הַקָּטֹן יִגְדַּל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְזַרְעוֹ, יִהְיֶה מְלֹא-הַגּוֹיִם
יְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, לֵאמוֹר, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה; וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-אֶפְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה
The truth is that the blessing: “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh” is a culmination of all the blessings of the Book of Genesis. Ephraim and Menashe were two nondescript kids who are never mentioned again in the Holy Text but who are linked together more than any siblings in the Bible. Unlike their predecessor siblings there is no record of a rivalry. While their father Joseph[ii] complains, they do not. I suggest that their mutual respect elevated the simple mention of their names into a blessing. In a meritocracy, titles are awarded to those like Ephraim who are deserving, by a society which rewards achievement and whose members each individually., like Menasheh, share an aspiration to achieve. A Start-Up Nation is powered by audacious and rogue entrepreneurs who are rewarded and funded by the landed gentry of the day. Everyone benefits. Ephraim and Manasseh is a win win… it’s a blessing.
Rashi, the great Medieval commentator in his first comment to the Bible asks why this Code of Law (Torah means Way or instruction) begins with the narrative of Genesis and not with the first commandment given to the generation of the Exodus in the book of that name?
He answers, that unlike every other nation which lays claim to its homeland because of prior and uninterrupted title, the Jews unabashedly admit that they have no entitled claim to their Promised Land. Abraham came from the other side of the “tracks” or in his case “river” and was the personification of the “other”. Abraham was the first Hebrew which means Other. (Ivri – Hebrew as in Me’ever HaNehar ).
It is God, as introduced in Genesis, who provides the even playing field. Just as the opposite of Chosen is entitled, so the opposite of the Promised Land is a Land with a Title.
Since God created the Universe, it is God, not nature, not title, not bloodline and not incumbency which awards the Promised Land.
Here’s the text of that first Rashi:
In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded. Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.
אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב”ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו
Ironically, if the Jews as the Chosen People and the Land as the Promised Land, have a message to mankind, it is not that one people has inalienable privileges and natural rights to a piece of real estate but to the contrary. The election of a chosen people for a promised land is a declaration that “The earth is the Lord’s” and no man, woman or child has a claim or right to any land or social title. (The flip side for the Jews, as the Hebrew Prophets never tire of repeating, is that if they forget that the Earth is the Lord’s they will be spit out to wander the world dispossessed and stateless).
It was in Jewish Learning, scholarship and intellectual inquiry that this rejection of entitlement and genetic patrimony paid its biggest dividends.
The story of a young Akiva as an ignorant laborer (am haAretz) who works his way up to lead the academy is legend. Other stories of Talmudic scholars who started out dirt poor, as converts or as petty criminals are common. There are no glass ceilings in the pursuit of knowledge and it is this chosenness that we celebrate when we bless Torah Study.
In their reading, the First Century Rabbis insinuate that what set apart the second-born of our patriarchs wasn’t their birth-order but their dedication to learning. According to Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all were part of a certain Scholar’s Council.
According to Genesis 25: 27 “Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”
וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים
For the Rabbis, the tents in which Jacob sat (ישב) were the academies (ישיבות) of Shem [Noah’s son] and Eber [Noah’s grandson]. Genesis Rabbah 63:10 b. Yoma 28b)
Similarly in Genesis 47:1 (above) when it says that [someone] said to Joseph that Jacob was ill Rashi comments: Some say, however, that Ephraim was accustomed to study with Jacob, and when Jacob became ill in the land of Goshen, Ephraim went to his father to Egypt to tell him.
ויש אומרים אפרים היה רגיל לפני יעקב בתלמוד, וכשחלה יעקב בארץ גושן, הלך אפרים אצל אביו למצרים והגיד לו
For the Rabbis, the selection of Israel and a dedication to unconstrained study were one and the same.
The Rabbis elevated study to a religious obsession.
There are five separate blessings said over the public reading and study of Torah.
The first three are for the study of Torah and found in the introductory portion of the daily prayer service and the second two are recited before and after the public reading of the Torah on Sabbaths, Holidays and market days (Mondays and Thursdays).
Uncharacteristically, the Talmud does not pick and choose between blessings offered by different sages but includes them all… “Let us recite them all” [Bab Talmud Berakhot 11b] When it comes to study, the more blessings the better….
See Daily Torah Blessings in Sim Shalom pp 6-8
Blessed are You Lord God King of the world Who has commanded us to engage (לעסוק) in the words of Torah.
And make sweet Lord God your words of Torah in our mouth and in the mouths of your nation the House of Israel and let us and our children all know your name and learn your Torah for its name sake (לשמה). Blessed are You our God Who teaches Torah to his people Israel.
Blessed are You Lord God King of the world Who has chosen us from amongst all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You of God Who gives the Torah.
ברוך אתה ה’ א-לוהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וציוונו לעסוק בדברי [על דברי] תורה
והערב נא ה’ א-לוהינו את דברי תורתך בפינו ובפיות עמך בית ישראל, ונהיה אנחנו וצאצאנו כולנו יודעי שמך ולומדי תורתך לשמה, ברוך אתה ה’ המלמד תורה לעמו ישראל
ברוך אתה ה’ א-לוהינו מלך העולם אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו, ברוך אתה ה’ נותן התורה
As is the custom with any blessing, the blessing must be followed immediately by the action which it sanctifies, so these blessings are followed by a short passage from the Torah, Mishneh and the Gemara (Bab Talmud Shabbat 127a) ending with:
And the study of Torah is equal[iii] to them all
וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם
And the study of Torah is equal to them all
The word לעסוק is translated by Sim Shalom as “study” but this robs it of all meaning. The word “asok” means to work. In Modern Hebrew the word means “business” so it contains also the sense of struggle (for one’s daily living) as well as barter and the give and take of the marketplace of things and ideas.
There is something revolutionary going on here in the daily prayers. Not only does the blessing celebrate the competitive exchange of ideas and opinions so characteristic of Jewish Learning but also insures that every peddler, baker, banker and blowhard had to study a text every morning or be guilty of reciting a blessing in vain. In Judaism study has never been limited to the academy or to the scholars.[iv]
The word לשמה is translated “on its own merit” but is alternatively translated “for its own sake” or literally “for its name” and traditionally has been understood to mean to do something without looking for a reward, or in the case of scholarship, pure research without any intended outcome or obvious practical application. All characteristics of inquiry that lead to paradigm shifting discovery.
Here too.. the revolutionary element of Jewish learning is in view, where no opinions or conclusions are out of bounds… as radical, unforeseen or even unorthodox (or should we say heterodox) that they might be.
And finally we have mention of the election of Israel, both in this daily blessing and the blessings before and after the public reading of the Torah.
The only other blessings to include mention of Israel’s selection is the blessing relating to Israelite national holidays which is to be expected. But the mention of Israel’s choseness with regard to Torah study and public reading is less obvious… unless one appreciates the connection the Rabbis made between the entitlement reform inherent in choseness and the entitlement reforming potential of unfettered intellectual inquiry.
The Talmud asks the standard “who do you save first” question normally prefaced by “a boat-is-sinking” or “a house-is-burning” but in a nod to Jewish history is rephrased: Hostages-have-been-taken, who do you save first?”
To release from capture, a Cohen (priest) comes before a Levi, a Levi before a Yisroel and a Yisroel before a Mamzer (bastard). When? When they are equal. But if the Mamzer is a Talmud Hacham and the [even] a High Priest is an ignoramus… the Mamzer (bastard) Scholar takes precedence over a High Priest ignoramus.
Mishneh Horiot, 3, 8
ולהוציא מבית השבי
… כוהן קודם ללוי, לוי לישראל, ישראל לממזר … אימתיי, בזמן שכולן שווין
אבל אם היה ממזר תלמיד חכמים, וכוהן גדול עם הארץ–ממזר תלמיד חכמים קודם לכוהן גדול עם הארץ
Judaism recognized and celebrated the power of scholarship, learning and critical thinking to break all social strata, caste systems and tribal barriers. Learning was the ultimate equalizer, the ultimate title reformer.
One final phrase of interest found in the blessings of the Torah is included in the blessing after the public reading of the Torah.
Where we bless God who has “given us the Torah of Truth, planting within us life eternal.
חיי עולם נטע בתוכנו
There is something adversarial and combative about Torah learning. The Rabbis are always counterpointing it to something else. Above, against (כנגד) all the commandments and here, against prayer…. The Rabbis associate “temporal life” (חיי שעה) with prayer and eternal life (חיי עולם) with study.
Raba saw R. Hamnuna prolonging his prayers. Said he, They forsake eternal life and occupy themselves with temporal life. But he [R. Hamnuna] held, The times for prayer and [study of the] Torah are distinct from each other. R. Jeremiah was sitting before R. Zera engaged in study; as it was growing late for the service, R. Jeremiah was making haste [to adjourn]. Thereupon R. Zera applied to him [the verse], He that turneth away from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination. [Bab Talmud Sabbath 10a]
This is a variation on the famous line attributed to Louis Finkelstein: “When I pray I speak to God; when I study, God speaks to me.”
Study is our link with eternity because knowledge is truly the only thing that we pass on to future generations. This is the true eternal life (חיי עולם).
Maybe that explains why the blessing that parents give their children every week is actually not a parental blessing at all…. It’s a grandparental blessing originally given by Jacob/Israel to his grandchildren Ephraim and Menasha! The blessing celebrates multigenerational aspect of living a life not based on a static patrimony but on an active and chosen engagement.
And maybe that’s why, of all the Rabbis and Midrashim that Rashi quotes in his commentary, scholars have been unable to find the source of this first midrash, nor have they been able to identify this certain Rabbi Yitzchak to whom Rashi refers. Could it be that this Rabbi Yitzchak was not a Rabbi of Midrashic times, but was actually Rashi’s own father?[v] “Rashi” is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchaki and after all it is only in learning that we honor and preserve the memory of our parents, grandparents and teachers…
[adopted from a kavanah study session at The Conservative Synagogue of Westport, CT]
[i] Abraham is an interesting possible exception. See Genesis 10: 27
[ii] The truth is, that the resolution of the birthright/chosen conflict at the end of Genesis includes not only Ephraim and Menasha, but Joseph as well. Joseph, who as the first-born of Rachel, Jacob’s chosen first-born wife gets the double portion due a first-born by receiving two tribal portions (Ephraim and Menashe) in the promised land.
[iii] נגד as in a scale where all the commandments are on one side of the scale and the study of Torah is on the other. Compare also נגד as in the exchange of opposite or differing opinions אזר כנגו, כנגד ההר, כנגד ארבה בנים
[iv] As Nahum Sarna writes: “the conventional treaty provision requiring periodic public reading of the treaty’s stipulations was expanded in Israel and transformed into a wholly new category: the obligation, oft repeated, to disseminate the law among the masses; that is, the universal duty of continuous self-education.” [Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Nahum M. Sarna, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Aug 10, 2011 p. 143
[v] “His impressive commentary of the Bible starts with a question asked by a Rabbi Yitzhak: ….. for some exegetes, this Rabbi Yitzhak is none other than the author’s father. If this assumption is correct, it would mean that we know at least one thing about Rashi’s father: he was himself a rabbi who posed questions worthy of contemplation. But beyond the fact that he was the father of one the greatest scholars of the biblical and Talmudic literature, we know very little.”
Wiesel, Elie (2009-08-06). Rashi (Jewish Encounters) (p. 11). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.