Cosmic Arm Wrestling

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Yosef eagerly prepares his children Menashe and Efraim to receive a personal blessing from their grandfather Yaakov.

As Menashe is his firstborn and thus deserving of an enhanced blessing due to his primary standing vis-a-vis his younger brother Efraim, Yosef positions Menashe to his left so that when facing Yaakov, Menashe will be standing to Yaakov’s right, enabling Yaakov to easily place his right hand — the symbolically stronger one, indicative of the more significant blessing — on Menashe’s head.

Yaakov famously directs his right hand toward Efraim’s head, situating his left one upon Menashe.

The Torah reports how Yosef when observing this is ‘displeased’ and tries to intervene by physically lifting his father’s hand from Menashe’s head and direct it toward Efraim’s.

Yosef verbally corrects his father by telling him it’s not the proper way as the firstborn is deserving of the right hand.

Yaakov ‘refuses’, revealing to Yosef how he is quite aware of what he is doing and although the older one will attain greatness, the younger one is destined to become even greater.

What was Yaakov thinking? Didn’t he realize Yosef would be bewildered when seeing this odd behavior? Couldn’t all this drama have been avoided if Yaakov would have simply explained in advance his intentions and the logic behind them?

The Midrash depicts how when Yosef endeavored to lift his father’s hand, Yaakov exclaimed, “The hand that was able to conquer a third of the world, you are attempting to push away?!” 

This refers to Yaakov’s having defeated the Saro shel Esav, the heavenly protector of Esav, who is described as occupying a third of the world.

What is the meaning of this cosmic ‘arm wrestle’ that transpired between Yosef and Yaakov?

Yosef is the antagonist of Esav. Esav epitomizes kinah, jealousy, the seed of enmity and hatred. The selfless Yosef, who was a victim of the jealousy of his brothers, is the antidote to this character flaw, that will defeat Esav and his ilk.  

Yaakov sought to instruct his cherished son Yosef, at the end of his life, regarding the pitfalls of this evil trait and how vulnerable we all are to its lure. 

Perhaps he sought to provoke precisely those weaknesses within the human character that so often leave us exposed to dangerous attitudes. Yaakov intentionally withheld his plan, to provoke Yosef into an awareness of his own vulnerability. Despite Yosef’s determination to stifle jealousy among his own children, he fell victim to the assumptions that create distance between men.

Yosef’s very first reaction was that he was ‘displeased’ or more literally, it was ‘bad in his eyes’. Yosef erroneously believed that Yaakov took him for a fool. Yosef’s initial thought was that Yaakov assumed that he had inconsiderately placed Menashe to his own right, thereby necessitating Yaakov to cross his hand towards him, when in fact he had been sensitive to place Menashe correctly to Yaakov’s right. 

One of the Tosafists, Rav Yitzchok HaLevi, indeed explains that was precisely Yosef’s thinking.

We too, often project our own presumptions without giving the benefit of the doubt to the other party. 

Yosef is so sure of himself that he instinctively tries to physically redirect Yaakov’s hand. 

Yaakov’s referencing his exhibition of strength in defeating the angel wasn’t a boastful challenge to Yosef to go try and budge him. He was teaching Yosef that in order to defeat Esav one must be free of the tainted attitudes that are associated with Esav. One who is so confident of his own ‘righteous’ conclusions will end up encroaching on the boundaries of others inappropriately and doubt the actions of those greater than him.

In truth, it extends beyond the realm between man and man to one’s very relationship with G-d and providence. Might that be the deeper message behind Yaakov’s reminder to Yosef that he defeated the forces of Esav who foolishly believe in self-determination, never contemplating possibilities beyond one’s own ken.  

Yosef ‘gets it’ immediately, and his children quietly and humbly, absorb this profound secret for success in life. If we can master this, our relationships with each other and most certainly with G-d will be inspired by a pursuit of a genuine truth. 

Yaakov alludes to Efraim’s greater stature due to his descendant Yehoshua, whose humility was legendary and the attribute that contributed to his becoming the paradigm of a selfless and devoted student, never fazed by the unexpected.

But Menashe is great as well, since Gideon will stem from him.

Gideon was renowned as well, for his always finding the positive in others and for selflessly devoting himself to his father. (רד)  

Despite the switch, these worthy sons of Yosef quietly and happily accepted their lots and were equipped to defeat the forces of Esav that seed frustration and conflict.

Might that be the objective of this pithy blessing, that our children should never get frustrated, accepting the roles carved out for them in life by providence, not always by choice? 

Is there a greater lesson for life than this?  

May our children be blessed with these qualities and merit a world free of dissent and contention.

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