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Monday, December 28, 2009

Vayechi, Breishis 49:4. The Rights of the Firstborn: An Entitlement that has to be Earned

Earlier posts on Vayechi:

This Week's post:

In this week's parsha, Yaakov told Reuven that he was taking away Reuven's special rights as a Firstborn.   Had Reuven not failed, he would have been entitled to Royalty, Spiritual leadership, and a double portion of his father's estate.  He was now informed that Royalty was given to Yehuda, Spiritual leadership to Levi, and the double portion of the estate was given to Yosef, by elevating each of his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, to the status of independent tribes equal with Yosef's brothers, and who would therefore now receive one portion each, with the result that Yosef's family received twice as much as any other tribe.

So the two sons of Yosef benefitted from Reuven's loss of his firstborn-status.  Interestingly, those two sons also experienced a reversal of the laws of the firstborn.  When Yosef brought his sons to his father for a final blessing, Yaakov crossed his hands and gave the dominant blessing to the younger son.  Yosef tried to correct his father, and said that Menashe deserved the greater blessing inasmuch as he was the Bechor.  Yaakov explained that he switched hands intentionally, because the younger son was the more capable one and the leader of the two, and he needed the greater blessing in order to channel his greater abilities (48:19).

Is this a coincidence, that twice in one parsha, a bechor loses his advantage to a younger brother?  No.  As it turns out, Sefer Breishis is a constant reiteration of the probationary character of the bechora.  It is a long list of bechors who lost their bechora advantages to their younger brothers.  What happens in this week's parsha is not an exception to the rule-- in Sefer Breishis, it's practically the rule.

1. Cain and Hevel are the first example.  Cain lost favor with Hashem, while Hevel, the younger brother, earned favor with his more thoughtful korban.

2. Yishmael, of course, was Avraham's eldest child, and legally entitled to the status of Bechor.  He was driven away from home, and Yitzchak remained the only recognized child-- "ki be'Yitzchak yikarei lecha zera." .

3. Then we have the famous story of Yakov and Eisav, where Eisav actually sold the bechora.  Even if Eisav hadn't sold it, he would have lost the Bechora for disparaging it-- Vayivez Eisav es habechora.  Of course, Yakov's blessings later ratified this change.

4.  Reuven's loss of the Bechora.

5.  Ephraim and Menashe.

6.  Later, Moshe becomes the leader of Klal Yisrael, not Aharon, the older brother.  Aharon wasn't the bechor, but as an older brother, he should have had precedence.

7.  After the sin of the Golden Calf, all the firstborns, who had originally been the Kohanim, lost their Kehuna to Shevet Levi.

On the other hand, in Ki Seitzei, the basic rule that a bechor inherits a double portion of the estate is taught in the context of an unworthy bechor.  The pasuk describes a plural marriage where the husband despises both the mother of his bechor and the bechor himself (see Rashi Devarim 21:11), and he loves the mother of the second-born, and despite this, he is enjoined to leave the double portion to the unworthy son

How can it be that the entire Sefer Breishis tells us repeatedly and almost without exception of firstborns  who lost their bechora, whose rights were stripped from them and given to their younger brothers, and then in stating the Law of Inheritance the Torah warns us to never do so ourselves?

The answer is that the question was misleading.  The list of supplanted bechors never once involves property.  Every case deals with the spiritual heritage of the parent.  Now, it might be argued that unlike money, a spiritual heritage can be shared without diminution, and therefore all the children might be able to receive the entire spiritual heritage.  Might-be-argued, however, is not the same as well-argued.  It seems incontrovertible that every great man leaves one individual that steps into his shoes.  There might be many individuals who have been formed entirely by the great man, and there might be many who have been so deeply influenced that their style and speech and approach and even appearance might be reminiscent of their mentor.  But there is only one Successor.  All things being equal, the eldest is the successor.  But that preference is tentative: Ultimately, if the eldest is undeserving, succession is determined by merit, not by birth-order.

The only case where one might cavil about this distinction is that of the Yosef.  It seems from our parsha that Reuven actually lost his double share of the inheritance in the land of Israel; that it was given to Yosef by way of giving his two sons status equal to Yaakov's own children, which would mean that Yosef's family inherited twice what his brothers inherited.  This is, however, incorrect.  A glance at Rashi will show that Yosef's sons DID NOT RECEIVE ONE INCH MORE OF LAND than any other grandson; the land that would have been coming to Yosef as a heir was all the land they got.  In fact, Rashi here and in Parshas Pinchas says that every adult male that entered the Land of Israel was apportioned one section of land, so the higher population tribes received more than the tribes with fewer members.  The only extra thing the sons of Yosef received was sovereignty.   In other words, unlike the children of Reuven, who were all members of the sovereign tribe of Reuven, the sons of Yosef were different: Menashe and his children formed one sovereign tribe, and Ephraim was a separate sovereign tribe.  But their land grant was not greater than it would have been in any case; each only got half of what a whole Yosef tribe would have gotten.  The only thing they gained from this sovereignty was a different flag, or another vote in choosing a king or leader of Sanhedrin.  (The Gur Aryeh suggests some more possible benefits.)

The Ramban happens to argue with this Rashi, and says that the sons of Yosef did indeed receive the double portion that should have gone to Reuven.  There are several approaches to explain the Ramban in the light of the halacha prohibiting taking the bechora away from the bechor(YD 181): it was before mattan Torah; it was by fiat of "Ruach Hakodesh;" when Yaakov promised to marry Rachel, he promised her that her son would get pi shnayim, and so her son was the bechor in a sense (Bava Basra 123a); or the Sforno in Devarim 21:15, that the prohibition from taking away the bechora is only where the father does it because he dislikes the child's mother, but where the child was unworthy, the father has the right to do so (most likely not true le'halacha).  And the truth is, I don't think the kashe is so strong even according to the Ramban, because Yaakov didn't give Yosef anything that he currently owned.  He just gave him the title "bechor," and this resulted in Yosef receiving a double share of Eretz Yisrael.  But according to Rashi, there is no problem at all.

And just because I like it: I just heard a wonderful story a man named Altusky, who is now a Rosh Yeshiva in Darkei, when he was a talmid of Reb Avrohom Yehoshua.  He asked a kashe in shiur, and Reb Avrohom Yehoshua told him, in public, that for such a kashe, he needs to sit shiva neki'im, and then start the perek from the beginning again.  The next day, the bachur asked another kashe, as if nothing had happened.  Years after this incident, Reb Avrohom Yehoshua has spoken about how times had changed: now, if you would say that to a bachur, he wouldn't look you in the face for a month.


N said...

nice :)

Barzilai said...

Thank you. I don't think my older brother sheyichyeh will appreciate it much, though.