Vayechi – Putting Your Mind to Going Against the Norm

For Food for Thought in Spanish: Haga clic aquí para leer en español. Please share this with your Jewish Spanish speaking family, friends, and associates.

This dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Harav Avraham ben Tzvi Mordechai Kanarek zt”l on his first yahretzeit, this Shabbos, the 14th of Teves. May it be a zechus for his holy neshama.

This week’s Torah portion of Vayechi is the concluding portion of the Book of Breishis. Yaakov blesses all his children, including 2 of his grandchildren from Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe. Though Menashe was older, Yaakov switched his hands for his stronger hand to be on Ephraim as the Torah records:

13. And Yoseph took them both, Ephraim at his right, from Israel’s left, and Manasseh at his left, from Israel’s right, and he brought [them] near to him. יג:וַיִּקַּ֣ח יוֹסֵף֘ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶם֒ אֶת־אֶפְרַ֤יִם בִּֽימִינוֹ֙ מִשְּׂמֹ֣אל יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־מְנַשֶּׁ֥ה בִשְׂמֹאל֖וֹ מִימִ֣ין יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיַּגֵּ֖שׁ אֵלָֽיו:
14.But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Manasseh’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn. ידו:ַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה שִׂכֵּל֙ אֶת־יָדָ֔יו כִּ֥י מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה הַבְּכֽוֹר:

The word used at the end of pasuk 14 discussing switching his hand is   שִׂכֵּל   which is in the past active, forceful tense ((פיעל, literally meaning he put his mind into it. The Radak explains that Yaakov, “put his mind into his hands, as if they did what they did [i.e., the switch] with a mind and with wisdom. For Menashe was the firstborn, and [Yaakov] saw through prophesy that he would be smaller in blessing. This is [using] the mind, for if he would have his right hand on the head of Menashe, what mindfulness would that have been because that is just the way of the world?!” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The right side is known in halacha and kabbala to be stronger and more important, therefore it makes sense to be placed on the one getting the main blessing, which would normally be the firstborn, in this case Menashe. However, Yaakov saw through prophesy that Ephraim deserved the bigger or stronger force of a blessing, as, for example Yehoshua Bin Nun and other leaders of the Jewish people throughout history came from Ephraim (see Radak on pasuk 19.)

Therefore, he switched his hands to put the right, stronger hand on Ephraim.
Now when the Radak explains why the Torah says this took a bit of wisdom and intelligence to do it is because it doesn’t take too much intelligence to do things in the way of the world, meaning what is normal, meaning it would have been normal to put his right hand on Yosef’s firstborn son, Menashe, but it sounds like it took some effort or an intellectual decision to go against the norm and figure out what must be done which was to switch his hands.

But what seems to be the big deal? What was the challenge Yaakov had to overcome which needed him to actively put his mind (with force) into making the decision that he made? Shouldn’t it have been obvious and simple to Yaakov that he was supposed to switch his hands? He saw  through prophecy that Menashe deserved the smaller blessing, which there is no truer or clearer communication of Hashem’s word; that should have made him arrive at this decision. This also wasn’t the first time that he did something which seemed to have been out of the norm. He himself received the main blessing from his father, Yitzchak, by tricking his firstborn brother Esav. He also had used stealth and trickery to deal with his father-in-law Lavan; so why would this be a hard decision, which needed such detail as putting his mind to it in order to make the right choice? Obviously, the right decision should be made, and figuring out how to apply the prophecy should have been easy to figure out, especially  for Yaakov Avinu who had such a high level of emuna and bitachon in Hashem, as well as such a close relationship with Him that it should have been simple to make a decision like this one to switch his hands if prophesy indicates he should do so!

However, it would seem based on this Radak that on some minutely slight level even Yaakov Avinu could be affected by what’s considered normal and it was a challenge for him to figure out how to do the right thing. And only because he put his mind to it and made an intellectual decision to switch his hand was he able to do so.

We see from here how hard it is to go against what is considered normal, for example societal norms, even when they are antithetical to what is right. However, we also see that there is a tool that can be used to fix the issue, which is wisdom; using our heads to overcome what people say is normal but is in reality  the wrong choice.  It is only by using our heads can we choose to make right decisions and to follow the proper way of life.