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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Vayechi

"And Yisrael extended his right hand and laid it on Efraim's head... and his left hand on Menashe's head. He maneuvered his hands, for Menashe was the first born." (48:14)

The right hand has been attributed spiritual primacy. Therefore, this hand receives preference in mitzvah performance. Yaakov desired to place his right hand upon Efraim, whom Yosef had placed on Yaakov's left side. This could only be done if Yaakov was to crisscross his hands. Why could not Yaakov simply maneuver the two sons, placing Efraim on his right side and Menashe on his left? Yaakov was clearly communicating a message. The scenarios in which Menashe stood on his right , but his right hand was placed upon Efraim, manifest a specific significance for each son.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, comments that Yosef constituted a composite of two distinct types of people: the spiritual, pious man; and the worldly man, the consummate statesman, who was responsible for directing a country. Yosef studied Torah from his father. Indeed, he was Yaakov's prized student to whom Yaakov had transmitted the Torah he had learned in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever. This righteous scholar was taken from his father's home and sold as a slave to the degenerate Egyptians. He overcame temptation, triumphed over the blandishments of Egyptian culture, and emerged as the viceroy of Egypt. He became the ruler par-excellance, a distinguished statesman who dealt effectively with people from all countries. Menashe and Efraim collectively reflected that which Yosef embodied. Menashe's primary function was to assist his father. He served as Yosef's chief of staff and was privy to all aspects of the government. Efraim, on the other hand, was the one who devoted his time to spiritual pursuit. He studied with his grandfather Yaakov, quite possibly in a similar manner to that which his grandfather had employed with his father, Yosef, before him.

Yaakov Avinu prioritized Efraim's vocation over that of Menashe to communicate a powerful and clear message: Torah reigns supreme. It is the lifeblood of our people and therefore takes precedence in regard to blessing. Yet, we need judges to adjudicate and enforce law and stability. A viable nation must have at its helm leadership capable of governing the people domestically, as well as guiding their foreign policy. It goes without saying that it is essential for such leadership to remain totally subjugated to the dictate of Am Yisrael's spiritual leadership, for daas Torah is the only factor in all decision making. For this reason, Yaakov did not move Menashe, but kept him on his right side to emphasize the significance of both sons and their chosen vocations in life. The aggregate of Menashe and Efraim was equal to Yosef. Consequently, when Yaakov made his blessing, the Torah says, "And he blessed Yosef," for blessing Yosef's two sons was actually equivalent to blessing Yosef himself.

Targum Yonason indicates that the blessing, "May Hashem make you like Efraim and Menashe," is to be said when a newborn boy receives his bris milah. Why is this blessing to be given at a bris milah? Horav Schwab observes that the definition of the word mahul, is to join or to synthesize. The bris milah creates a symbiosis between the spirit and the flesh, between the physical/material individual and his spiritual/eternal essence. Now he has been spiritually inducted into Am Yisrael and vested with the responsibilities that accompany this distinction. With the removal of the physical orlah, the kedushah is manifest throughout the child. Hence, at this unique moment, we bless the child that he should merit to use all his qualities and abilities to become an "ish ha'neshamah," spiritual man, as well as an "ish ha'maase," person who will be active in the material world. The latter should be in the manner of Yosef, completely inspired by the Torah, using his G-d given attributes for the betterment of Klal Yisrael.

"Water-like impetuosity you cannot be foremost." (49:4)

Was Reuven a sinner or not? On one hand, Chazal say that Reuven was punished for moving his father's bed into his mother Leah's tent. On the other hand, we are taught that whoever claims that Reuven sinned is mistaken. Indeed, Yaakov seems to be denouncing Reuven's impulsiveness, while still including him among the tribes. Horav Arye Levine, zl, says that although one may perform a grave sin, that single sin does not render him a sinner by nature. He is, rather, a person who lost control of himself. Horav Levine stated this in the context of one of his famous visits to the Raml'e Prison.

As the warden accompanied Horav Levine through the prison, he noted a cell in which sat a prisoner who had murdered his neighbor on Erev Yom Kippur over a dispute about garbage cans! The fact that by nature the murderer was a quiet and gentle man made this crime seem even more bizarre.

In his inimitable manner, Horav Levine asked to speak to the prisoner. After a few minutes of conversation, the prisoner became noticeably uneasy, exclaiming, "Why are you doing this, Rebbe? Why are you spending your valuable time talking to a lowly murderer? Do you know what I did? I lost control of myself, and I killed a man. Had one of the bystanders just grabbed me and knocked some sense into my head, he might have prevented this terrible tragedy. Now, see what has happened. How can I ever repent my sin? How can I ever atone the murder of an innocent man?" Immediately following the outburst, the prisoner began to sob uncontrollably.

Seeing this pathetic scene, Horav Levine spoke encouragingly to the prisoner. "You are not a murderer by nature. You are a human being whose anger has taken control of him. Your 'sin' was your lack of self-control. While you remain in prison to expiate your sin, work on your emotions. Learn to stabilize your anger, so that when you become free you will be able to enter society as a decent, normal human being."

This is what Yaakov was saying to Reuven. You acted impetuously. You had no intent to harm. However, your rash behavior caused you to lose your bechorah. You are not a sinner by nature, but your nature caused you to sin. Remember your error, so that it will not recur.

"Shimon and Levi are brothers... Into their conspiracy let my soul not enter... For in their anger they killed people and at their whim they maimed an ox." (49:5,6,7)

Rashi explains the two sins to which Yaakov is referring, which occurred at Shechem, where in their "anger" the two brothers destroyed an entire city. The reference to an ox alludes to selling Yosef as a slave. At first glance, these two sins seem to be two isolated cases in which Shimon and Levi, provoked by anger, acted inappropriately. The Kesav Sofer, however, notes a fascinating connection between the two, which suggests a stimulating idea.

Why did Shimon and Levi totally destroy Shechem? They felt that one of their own flesh and blood, their sister Dinah, was debased in a terrible manner. This violation could not go unpunished. They forgot one issue, however. While they were expressing their concern for their sister, they completely disregarded the fact that the individual they were persecuting, the one they were selling to a life of slavery and pain, was none other than their brother Yosef! If they had been so concerned for heir own flesh and blood, why did they ignore Yosef's pleas? Where was their compassion and sense of justice when they were persecuting their own brother?

This blatant case of misplaced priorities, or just plain prejudice, is an example of something of which we are all guilty at times. How often do we decry a wrong if its perpetrator is someone with whom we have no affiliation, but look the other way when one of "our own" commits the same deed? Do we recognize a double standard in which a deed is improper if executed by someone else, but deemed appropriate -- or even virtuous -- when we commit the same act? Consistency in perspective is as important as it is in behavior.

"Yehudah - you, your brothers shall acknowledge: your hand will be at your enemies nape." (49:8)

Chazal teach us that the tribes will acclaim Yehudah and designate him as their king in this world, as well as in Olam Habah. Shevet Yehudah produced the Jewish kings who will conquer those kings that have challenged our people. His "hand will be at his enemy's nape." He hardened his "neck" and acted resolutely, with dignity, as he shamed himself publicly by confessing to his encounter with Tamar. He will, consequently, merit control over the nape of the necks of his enemies as he conquers them.

If we were to analyze Yehudah's reaction to the ma'ase Tamar, the episode with Tamar, we might question that he received such a remarkable reward. Should he have permitted his pregnant daughter-in-law to be burned to death? It would have been inhuman to stand still and renege responsibility at the expense of three innocent lives!

Horav Yehudah Leib Chasman, zl, takes a practical approach to understanding man's ability to confront his own errors. He observes that even a G-d fearing person might falter and sin and then attempt to cover up his guilt through subterfuge. In his condition, he may even go to great lengths to repair the consequences of his sin. The bottom line, however, will always be to conceal. He does it quietly, in such a way that no one will uncover and publicize the sin. He might even justify his behavior by claiming that if his indiscretion was known, it would be a grave chillul Hashem. This is nothing more than a "teritz," an excuse, for covering up his guilt. He knows that he has sinned, so why does he cover-up his guilt? He is repenting and penalizing himself. Yet, he still makes every attempt to conceal his sin. Why? Horav Chasman claims that this approach indicates a lack of willingness to admit that he was wrong. It is a final attempt to justify himself to preserve his own dignity when he looks at himself in the mirror. With this lack of public hoda'ah, confession, he falls short of performing one of the primary elements of teshuvah, acknowledging that he had sinned!

Yehudah could have easily found a way to justify his involvement with Tamar. A malach, an angel, pushed him towards her. Like the judge who sentenced Tamar, Yehudah could have found an avenue for saving her from execution without divulging his participation. In fact, he could have claimed that it was more propitious for the spiritual climate not to disclose his role in the matter. It would be a chillul Hashem to incite people to gossip about Yehudah, their judge and respected legislator. People would not understand that his participation had been decreed from Heaven. Perhaps, it would really be more appropriate for fewer people to be aware of the reality.

Yehudah's middah of emes, his exemplary integrity, would not permit an infraction of justice even for a moment. As soon as he recognized the articles he had given to Tamar, he knew what had to be done and he immediately admitted both his involvement and his error. He could have found a number of legal arguments for concealing his name. Such an approach, however, would be tantamount to concealing the truth. This could possibly mark the end of Yehudah's career, tarnishing the image of Yaakov's family. Nonetheless, Yehudah could not tolerate anything but the truth. This was the height of integrity, the epitome of repentance, the true definition of a Jewish king - one who is able to reign even over himself.

Horav Chasman suggests that the words, "tzadkah mi'meni," she is more righteous than me," is not merely a confession; it was Yehudah's way of saying, "I have sinned, and I am ashamed." Yehudah was proclaiming his guilt, despite the fact that he had the opportunity and the rationale to justify his actions. Yehudah acted counter to human nature. Indeed, he rose above his own natural reaction in a manner befitting a ruler, which is why he became the ruler over Am Yisrael.


1. When did the Egyptian bondage begin?
2. What three things did Reuven lose as a result of his sin?
3. Must the king of Am Yisrael descend from the tribe of Yehudah?
4. Who killed Eisav?
5. Who carried Yaakov's coffin?
6. How many days after Yaakov died was he interred in the Me'oras Ha'machpeilah?
7. Who raised the sons of Machir ben Menashe?


1. The actual slavery began with the death of Levi, which occurred about 77 years after Yaakov's death. Yaakov's death, however, marked the initiation of the spiritual slavery, whereby the Jews no longer feared and loved Hashem as they had before. Some commentators suggest that after Yaakov's death, the Egyptians' began "convincing" the Jews to work with/for them.
2. Reuven lost malchus, kingship; Kehunah; and the bechorah.
3. Yes. According to the Ramban, the Chashmonaim were severely punished for taking over the kingship during the second Bais Ha'Mikdash.
4. Chazal say that Chushim ben Dan killed Eisav. The Yerushalmi, however, attributes Eisav's death to Yehudah. Tosfos explains that while Chushim was the first one to strike Eisav, the blow was insufficient to kill him. Yehudah completed the endeavor.
5. Yaakov's sons, excluding Levi and Yosef carried his coffin who was replaced by Menashe and Efraim.
6. 70 days.
7. Yosef.

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