“Picasso” Parashat Vayechi 5780

On one business trip, I had an afternoon off in Paris and I decided to go visit the Picasso Museum. I enjoy going to art galleries and I had not yet seen an exhibit dedicated entirely to Picasso’s work. Just as important, the museum is in the Marais District, near an assortment of kosher restaurants. For those of you unfamiliar with Picasso’s signature style, it is difficult to describe. Picasso’s art is based on cubism. He takes a three-dimensional object and then collapses it down to two dimensions. In the words of the Tate Galleries website, “[Picasso’s Cubism] brought different views of subjects (usually objects or figures) together in the same picture, resulting in paintings that appear fragmented and abstracted”. All the parts are there, they’re just not where they’re supposed to be. Picasso takes some getting used to.

Parashat Vayechi contains an episode that could have easily been painted by Picasso. Let me explain. The episode in question resides in the first part of the parasha. Joseph is informed that his father, Jacob, is on his deathbed. Joseph grabs his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and he runs to see Jacob so that Jacob can bless his sons before he dies. Jacob greets Joseph and then notices that there are two unidentified lads with him. He asks Joseph [Bereishit 48:7] “Who are these?” This is quite a strange question, seeing as Jacob has known these boys for the past seventeen years. According to Samuel David Luzatto, known as ShaDaL, who lived in Padua in the ninetheenth century, the reason Jacob does not recognize Joseph’s sons is because he is legally blind. Indeed, three verses later, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 48:10] “Jacob’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see”. Wait a minute: Why does the Torah wait three verses to tell us this? Why does it not tell us that “Jacob’s eyes were dim and so he asked Joseph ‘Who are these?’” Picasso.

Joseph then prepares his sons to be blessed [48:10]: “[Joseph] brought [his sons] close to [Jacob] and he kissed them and embraced them.” Jacob tells Joseph how thankful he is to merit seeing Joseph’s children but then suddenly [Bereishit 48:12] “Joseph removed them from [Jacob’s] knees and he bowed”. Wait a minute: Jacob hasn’t yet blessed Menashe and Ephraim. Why is Joseph taking them away from his father before he blesses them? Did someone have a change of heart? Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the eighteenth century, explains that Joseph wanted Jacob first to spend some quality time with his children so that a Divine muse could come over him. Only then would he be able to bless them with the proper intent. But why remove them? Picasso.

In the very next verse, Joseph puts his sons right back on Jacob’s knees, this time ensuring that Menashe, his oldest son, is on Jacob’s right hand side, and Ephraim, Joseph’s younger son, is on Jacob’s left hand side. Joseph wants Jacob to put his right hand – his more powerful hand – over the head of his eldest son, indicating that he is the first born and thus warranting a greater blessing than his brother[1]. But Jacob counters Joseph’s strategy. Jacob crosses his hands [Bereishit 48:14], putting his left hand over the head of Joseph’s  oldest son, who is standing to his right, and his right hand over the head of Joseph’s younger son, who is standing to his left. Picasso.

Jacob then blesses Joseph’s sons with words that we still use today to bless our children [Bereishit 48:16]: “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” Joseph sees what Jacob is doing and he objects [Bereishit 48:17]: “When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it was wrong: so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Menashe’s”. Wait a minute: According to the simple understanding of the verse, Joseph waits until Jacob finishes blessing his sons before he tries to uncross Jacob’s crossed hands. Shouldn’t Joseph have done this before his father blessed his sons? According to Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbam[2], who lived in France in the twelfth century, Joseph’s attempt to uncross Jacob’s hands actually does take place before Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons. Yet for some reason the Torah waits until after the blessing is over to mention Joseph’s objection. Picasso.

Jacob explains to Joseph why he crossed his hands, ostensibly favouring the younger son over the older [Bereishit 48:19]: “I know, my son, I know. He, too, shall become a people and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations”. That is to say, Ephraim warranted a greater blessing than Menashe because his descendants would be greater than Menashe’s descendants. Wait a minute: Why couldn’t Jacob bless Menashe so that his descendants would be just as great as Ephraim’s? Isn’t that the purpose of a blessing?

One of the primary motifs of Parashat Vayechi is the concept of a blessing. Not only does Jacob bless Joseph’s children, he also blesses Joseph himself, and then he blesses every single one of his other children. I suggest that the story of the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe, the first blessing recorded in the parasha, is structured like a Picasso painting to teach us a critical lesson regarding the concept of a blessing. What is it that we are doing when we bless another person? One answer might be that we are asking G-d to “walk with” the person being blessed and to smooth out any bumps along the way. But perhaps there is something else happening. The key lies in understanding the concept of the transcendence of G-d. It is relatively straightforward to understand how G-d can be infinitely large. In the words of Uncle Moishe and the Mitzvah Men: “Hashem (G-d) is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere…” The concept of G-d’s infinite power is equally straightforward. In the words of Marvin Gaye, “Ain’t no mountain high enough”. G-d’s transcendence in time, however, is a murkier concept, because it means more than just “G-d has no beginning and no end”, or “G-d can see from the beginning of time until the end of time”. Just as “infinity in space” means that G-d is “above space”, on a balcony, as it were, overlooking the universe, “infinity in time” means that G-d is “above time”. We explained this concept in a previous lesson[3] using as an example the Tralfamadorians[4], aliens from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”, who exist in all times simultaneously: “The universe does not look like lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other”. When we say that “G-d is above time”, we mean that G-d is standing on a balcony, simultaneously looking at all that has happened and all that will happen. Like a Picasso painting, G-d collapses the axis of time. All the parts are there, they’re just not where we think they’re supposed to be.

The ramifications of this interpretation are enormous. It is pointless to ask G-d to “change the future” because as far as G-d is concerned, there is no arrow of time. To G-d, the future already exists. What, then, is a blessing?  A blessing is not a wish for a better future but a wish for a different timeline altogether[5]. When we bless a person, we are asking G-d to give him a different Picasso painting. We are asking G-d to change his destiny – not only where he is going but how he will be getting there. We are asking G-d to elevate his entire being and to bring it closer to G-dliness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Tehila bat Adi.

[1] According to Jewish Law, the first born receives a double portion of his father’s inheritance.

[2] Rashbam was the grandson of Rashi. He was the brother of the famous Tosafist, Rabbeinu Tam.

[3] Parashat Bo 5776

[4] Tralfamadorians come from the planet Tralfamadore, a planet that appears in many of Vonnegut’s books.

[5] This can most definitely be connected with the physical concept of a “multiverse”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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