The Secret to Kindness

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Vayechi Joseph is Egyptian

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” – Atticus Finch

Joseph brings his sons to Jacob for a blessing. Menashe is older than Ephraim, but when Jacob blesses his grandson, Jacob places his preferred hand on Ephraim and his weaker hand on Menashe. Joseph objects because the eldest should have received the preferable blessing. Jacob replies the junior brother will outshine the senior.

This story really bothers me.

Joseph was not the eldest of Jacob’s sons. Jacob was not the eldest of Isaac’s sons. Isaac was not the eldest of Abraham’s sons. They all jumped ahead of their older brothers to be the primary heirs of their fathers. So why is Joseph freaking out? This is how things go! He literally just did the same thing by coming with his sons to get a blessing from Jacob ahead of his brothers!

I think this reaction came from the Egyptian in Joseph. The Torah presumes that Egypt had an obsession with first borns. It has to be this way. The worst plague was the death of the first borns. The entire book of Genesis undermines this preference for the eldest by telling stories of younger brothers besting their older brothers. In Numbers, God actually says “[the Levites] are given to Me from the Children of Israel, instead of the firstborns.”

Joseph was Egyptian aristocracy. He didn’t care that his family tradition downplayed the specialness of the firstborn. His society valued firstborn children. His objection to Jacob’s choice of Ephraim over Menashe was a spontaneous visceral reaction. He expected special treatment for his eldest even if it did not make sense in this context.

Perhaps Jacob could have been more sensitive and dealt with Joseph and his sons on their own terms. But he did not and it bothered Joseph.

We are all affected by our environment. It’s not a bad thing. It’s still a thing. We have to acknowledge that social environments are part of what defines us and then we can try to compensate. We also need to acknowledge that others are heavily influenced by society as well. Their society might be different than ours and that can account for massive differences between us. I think we will find that it is easier to be kind and not judgmental when we acknowledge this truth.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the founder of
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