Brothers fight. From the very first brothers of humanity, this has been a constant theme in the book of Breishit, and the dominant theme in what Yaakov calls his “short, bad” life. And from the first brothers of Breishit until the last ones, the fight is the same, and the Torah’s message is the same. It is a revolutionary message that God tried to teach Kayin, and one that Yaakov has come to appreciate over the course of his bitter experiences.
Yaakov’s troubles were born of the (mis)understanding that birth order and birthright are determinative. He comes out trying, unsuccessfully, to claw his way to first, and when that doesn’t work, he resorts to deception and manipulation. Whatever it takes so that the blessing of the birthright will be his.
In his blessings to his grandsons, Yaakov reveals that his understanding has changed fundamentally. Neither birth order nor blessing are responsible for success. The blessing does not determine its recipients fate, it merely reflects it. It is descriptive, rather than determinative. Yaakov’s justification for placing his right hand on Efrayim is not that he wants thereby to make him greater, but rather that he will be greater.
What will make him greater? History’s heroes and anti-heroes of Efrayim, Yehoshua bin Nun, the daughters of Tzelafchad, Yeravam ben Nevat, provide the answer. They are self-made men, and women, who rise to greatness not merely in the absence of hereditary privilege, but in contradiction to it, and even in revolt against it.
Man was created as an individual, the rabbis teach, in order that no one human can claim superiority over another. With the first first-born, the possibility that biology will create hierarchy enters human consciousness, and it is immediately and categorically rejected by God. All it takes is three short words, ten letters to capture the Torah’s revolutionary message of human empowerment and responsibility. “Im Teitiv, Se’et” (Breishit 4:7).
Do better, and succeed. A simple message with the power to overturn empires and to change lives that the world is still struggling to hear.
My own little daily 929 insight, in 300 words or so. What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il