This week’s parsha, Vayechi, opens with the story of Jacob in his last days. He summons his son, Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, who promises to ensure his father’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Soon after, Jacob lies on his deathbed; Joseph comes to visit and brings his two sons to receive their grandfather’s final blessings. Placing his hands on their heads, the Patriarch obliges. “[Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying, ‘G-d before Whom walked my forefathers, Abraham and Isaac; G-d Who tended to me from the time I was born until today. May the angel who rescues me from all evil bless the children ... ’” (Genesis 48:15-16).
The Torah states that Jacob blessed Joseph, yet the text records only blessings to Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Manasseh. Did Jacob bless Joseph separately? If so, why do we see no mention of the specifics in the verse?
The commentator Sforno (1475?-1550) takes the literal view and says that the Torah does not record what Jacob actually said to his son. Presumably, he gave Joseph a generic benediction, saving the special blessings for later (Genesis 49:22-26) when he gathers all his sons to hear his valedictory.
Most commentators, such as Nachmanides and Ezor Eliyahu, hold that Jacob gave one set of blessings. Nachmanides holds Jacob blessed Joseph. The Torah actually sets out the details in verses 15 and 16. Nachmanides explains, “The reason [the Torah casts the blessing to the children as a blessing to Joseph is that] to bless Joseph, in [Jacob’s] great love for him, he blessed his children . . . [Jacob wished] that all his blessings [to Joseph] would take root in the blessings [to] these children” (Nachmanides, Genesis 48:15). In short, Jacob blessed Joseph through his children. A father’s greatest blessing comes from righteous children.
Ezor Eliyahu (Lemberg 1889) has a different take: Jacob blessed the children only. Verse 15 invokes G-d Whom Abraham and Isaac worshipped. Jacob prays that G-d should bestow the blessing of the virtue of Abraham and Isaac — the ability to go forth and spread G-d’s word. Verse 16 invokes the angel who takes care of Jacob. Jacob prays that G-d, tending to him during times of trouble and sending an angel to rescue him, should protect Joseph’s children in a similar way. Abraham and Isaac had established G-d’s glory in the world, now the nation especially needs a shepherd to consolidate and preserve the gains. Indeed, in verse 16, Jacob blesses the children that they should carry the names of all three Patriarchs.
We can interpret verses 15 and 16 to say that Jacob delivers a blessing to the children only, but different from that which Ezor Eliyahu refers to. Jacob, in his love of his grandchildren, asks G-d to give them the strength of Joseph. By virtue of verse 20 (The Children of Israel will bless, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”), Jacob extends the blessing to all eternity.
The Talmud (Berachot 20a) relates that Rav Yochanan habitually sat at the gate of the bathhouse. Pressed as to why, he said that when women emerged, they would look at his handsome features and give birth to good-looking children. His colleagues asked him, why did he not fear jealous husbands? Rav Yochanan answered, “I come from the progeny of Joseph, whom the evil eye does not affect.” Rav Chanina explains that the conclusion of verse 16, (“And they shall prosper like the fish”) means that just as the ocean protects the fish population, so will Joseph’s descendants gain protection from harm.
The Talmud does not discuss whether Rav Yochanan descended from the tribe of Joseph. Maybe, with few exceptions, in Talmudic times, long after Sancheriv exiled the Kingdom of Israel, the remaining Jews belonged to the tribes of Levi, Judah, and Benjamin. Genealogy does not matter. The House of Joseph encompasses all Jews: “The House of Jacob shall become a fire and the House of Joseph a torch and the House of Esau stubble” (Obadiah 1:18).
Jacob blessed all Israel with the invulnerability of Joseph. May these blessings keep us safe always.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Z. Rokach is a retired attorney and a graduate of Yale Law School.