Vayigash is the Torah portion which contains the reunion of Jacob with Joseph, the Israelites’ descent into Egypt, and the lead up to Jacob’s final moments. In those final moments, which come a little later in the narrative, Jacob bestows blessings upon his children and grandchildren. These blessings are the same ones we say today to bless our own children on Friday night. Before giving the priestly blessing to all, we bless our daughters “My God make you as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah” and the boys “May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe.” One thing that stands out about these blessings is that both sets of names begin with the younger sibling, not the older.
When Jacob puts his right hand upon the younger, and his left upon the older, Joseph seems to think his father was making a mistake, and tries to reposition his father’s hands. But Jacob insists on putting younger before older. Our sages have asked a lot of questions about this. Some attribute it to the fact that Jacob couldn’t see well. RASHI interprets the verb sikel (he crossed) to mean that “he guided his hands with understanding and wisdom (sekhel)….he acted deliberately.”
In other words, Jacob knows what he is doing. But why is he doing it? Why, also, was Rachel blessed over Leah? In my study of this passage, I have read a number of interpretations that ask these questions. There is one scholar’s work whose work often goes unnoticed, yet whose interpretations of this mystery make the clearest sense.
Savina J. Teubal, PhD (z”l), author of Sarah the Priestess, researched a number of the most persistent mysteries of the Genesis narratives, and developed a theory for this order of younger before older. Teubal offers seven examples of ultimogeniture, succession by the youngest, in Genesis, and traces them to the matrilocal customs of our matriarchs. She presents the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe as a continuation of those customs. Also, of Rachel being chosen in the blessing over Leah “not simply (as tradition suggests) because she was the beloved, of Jacob, but because… [of] the [laws of the] matriarchs’ kinship group.”
If we follow Teubal’s interpretation, Jacob, in blessing Ephraim and Menashe in the order he did, was honoring the wisdom (using his sekhel) of the matriarchs’ group traditions. This is a compelling theory. It sheds new light on how we bless our children today, adding a deeper layer of possibility to the way we interpret this text for our own lives.