Hearing that his father Jacob was on the edge of death, Joseph brought his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh to see their old grandfather. Knowing that they stood before him, his eyesight failing, Jacob said that his grandsons will be no less “his” than his actual sons. Joseph then positioned the boys opposite their grandfather Jacob for a blessing expecting that Jacob would bless the first-born Manasseh. But Jacob reversed his hands and blessed Ephraim instead. (Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 48)
This isn’t the first time in the Hebrew Bible that the younger son is favored over the first-born. The precedent was established with Cain and Abel, continued with Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob’s 10 older sons and Joseph.
Don Corleone (The Godfather) loved all his sons but he preferred Michael, his youngest to succeed him as Godfather because he saw something special in Michael as the future leader of his “business” and family.
So too in the Biblical narrative. Abel’s offering to God was of a higher order than Cain’s. Isaac’s devotion to Abraham’s faith exceeded that of Ishmael. Jacob’s spiritual gifts were recognized by his mother Rebecca as opposed to Esau, a hunter and “man of the field.” And Jacob understood that Joseph was graced by God.
What about Manasseh and Ephraim?
Rashi (11th century, France) had this to say: “Ephraim was frequently in the presence of Jacob for the purpose of study” (Commentary on Genesis 48:1). This suggests that the younger son was like Jacob who preferred the study of Torah with his father to other earthly pursuits. Rashi presumed that Jacob could not have blessed his younger son Ephraim unless he regarded him as particularly special and well-suited for the blessing.
Commentators say that Manasseh too had gifts, but of a different kind. They note that he was a talented linguist and served as Joseph’s interpreter in Pharaoh’s court. Manasseh learned the arts of diplomacy, politics, and statesmanship. Whereas Manasseh embodied worldly wisdom, Ephraim exuded Torah wisdom.
By choosing Ephraim over Manasseh, tradition says that Jacob understood that Jewish leadership must be inspired by Torah learning first and foremost, regardless of a person’s brilliance in business, the sciences, or statecraft.
Despite the Biblical tradition of favoring the first-born, Judaism consistently affirmed that the birthright automatically should not determine leadership. Rather, leadership was to be based on merit and the qualities of soul.
Tradition also holds that age can corrupt the imagination and cool the ardors of youth. And so there must be a time when the dreams of the young take precedence and the elderly steps aside.
Rabbi Jacob Weinstein expanded the principle from the individual to the people of Israel:
“Israel should be understood as a permanent underground, the eternal yeast, the perennial Elijah spirit, ever willing to plough the cake of custom, to put rollers under thrones and give only a day to day lease to authority. Anchored to Torah, rooted to God, Israel feels free to dispense with human made hierarchies which would forever place the elder over the younger.” (Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein, D.D. The Place of Understanding: Comments on the Portions of the Week and the Holiday Cycle. New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1959. 39)
To be a Jew has meant always to be dissatisfied with the world as it is and to strive to transform it into a more just, compassionate, and peaceful place as guided by the principles of Jewish tradition and Torah. Jacob’s choice of Ephraim for the blessing represents this promise.
As a new U.S. Congress prepares to take office in our nation’s capital, the argument has arisen anew that younger leadership be given a chance to move forward the life of the nation. The Democrats will likely choose the experienced Nancy Pelosi to be Speaker, but she agreed that she would occupy that position only for another four years and then step aside for a younger member of Congress to become Speaker or, if the Democrats lose the Congress, the Minority Leader.
In the coming months as well many leaders will enter the fray of American presidential politics and Israel too faces an election in the coming year. Wisdom and vision may well rest with younger candidates over the tried and tested. We American and Israeli citizens would do well to remember the teachings of Jewish tradition concerning the merit of the young and not automatically reward those for their longevity of service unless, of course, older candidates have the best chance of defeating the current occupant of the White House or of the Prime Minister’s residence.