Friday, 06 Jan 2012

Written by Marc Neiger

ויהי ימי-יעקב שני חייו “Thus were the days of Yaakov, the years of his life” (Gen 47.28). I do not want to read it as such today; I will rather understand these words as “And the days of Yaakov were his two lives”.

Jacob, feeling his last days coming near, summons all his sons around him to bless them, first Joseph and his Egypt-born sons Ephraim and Manasseh. We can feel Israel’s resolution as he gathers his strengths to sit upright in his deathbed and to challenge Joseph, his son but also the viceroy of Egypt, in order to overturn the right of the first born. Then he goes on to address all of his sons, each in turn, giving them blessings which often resonate like a bill summarizing their character and failures. Having completed his deeds, Jacob gathers his feet in the bed and expires.

The transient surge of strength of Jacob and the tension in the text point to this event as a climactic moment. In the previous generations, the blessings of the patriarchs were transmitted to a single son; not only was the right of the first born overturned, but the other sons, Esau, Ishmael and the later sons of Abraham, were stripped of the patriarchs’ most precious legacy, the one which should paradoxically have been the easiest to share, God’s promise to their fathers. Until now we had only one patriarch at a time, Abraham, Isaac and Israel, as the recipient of the blessing, but now the blessing is dispatched upon the twelve tribes of Israel, כל־אלה שבטי ישראל שנים עשר, “all of these are tribes of Israel, twelve of them” (Gen 49.28).

The “two lives of Israel” refer to Israel as the single recipient of the blessing, and the twelve tribes of Israel sharing it. As they become twelve distinct tribes, new behaviours appear in Israel: they plot against one another and Joseph experienced it fully. The tribal rule and its violent code of honour compete with the will of Israel, leading a few to make the whole detestable to the other people, as did Levi and Simon.

Later during their travel in the desert, the tribes will camp together but in strict order, each according to the house of their fathers. The tribes will jealously guard their territory and the boundary of their patriarchal bloodlines. If the daughters of Tzelophehad were first successful in claiming for just material inheritance, it was only to be later dismissed sideways as the strength of the tribal rule, as defined by the male bloodline, was reaffirmed by forcing them to marry inside their father’s tribe.

The Torah also tells us that “the son of an Israelite woman, [but] whose father was an Egyptian” was sentenced to death for starting up a fight and uttering the Name in blasphemy (Lev. 24.10-14). According to Sifra, the fight broke over the spot the man chose to pitch his tent in the area of the tribe of Dan; but if his mother was of the tribe of Dan, his father was Egyptian.1  Thus he was not respecting the injunction that “Every Israelite man shall camp with his standard, under the banner of his paternal clan” (Num. 2.2).

Was there in the camp a place for this poor fellow whose name is not even mentioned? The strict organisation of the tribes does not leave him any space, and neither does he receive one according to his mother’s kin; nevertheless we should assume that the ערב רב, the mixed multitude which left Egypt with the Israelites, filled the interstitial spaces between the attributed tribes’ lots like cement between tiles.

But if there is no space inside the tribes, the Torah and midrash also give us a few examples where such space is created inside the people. According to rabbinic tradition all the house of Abraham, including the slaves bought in Haran became part of Israel.2  When Abraham goes to war to rescue his nephew Lot, his fighting forces amount to 318 (Gen. 14.14). And all males of his house will be circumcised together with Abraham and Ishmael, formally entering the Alliance with God (Gen. 17.23-27).

When Jacob goes down to Egypt, the text gives us a list of the family members (Gen. 46.9-27). If most female ancestry detail is simply ignored, some are openly the sons of foreign and Canaanite women (Gen. 46.10 and Gen. 38.2-3). Not the least of them are Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph. Joseph through his successful integration at the court of Pharaoh is the epitome of assimilation. His own name was changed to an Egyptian one and he was given an Egyptian noble woman as wife: Asenat, daughter of Poti-Phera priest of On (Gen. 41.45). Fully raised in Egypt in a mixed faith family, the position of Ephraim and Manasseh could appear unclear, belonging to this fuzzy nebula between the tribes. Even the status of Joseph, disconnected for so many years from his roots, can be questioned as he’s broken the genetic and cultural boundaries of the clan.

But as Jacob/Israel receives the visit of Joseph, he will himself transform the blurry lot of Ephraim and Manasseh into an effective portion. Swiftly the text shifts from using Jacob to using Israel, from the tribal perspective to the people perspective.3  Israel asks Joseph “who are these?” (Gen. 48.8), pointing to the two boys standing next to Joseph. Perhaps Israel only pretends not to know who they are: he’s been told about them in the preceding verses and even asked Joseph to bring them (Gen. 48.5). We are told that Israel’s eyes had dimmed but only after the critical question and its answer.

Joseph replies: בני הם אשר־נתן־לי אלהים בזה “They are my sons, whom God granted me in here” (Gen. 48.9). “God granted me”: by these words Joseph acknowledges and affirms his connexion to the legacy of Israel, the promise of God. “In here”, in Egypt: Joseph also recognizes the Egyptian background of his family, but only as secondary. Now that Israel received a reassuring answer about his grandchildren, he can proceed. Israel not only blesses Ephraim and Manasseh but he also adopts them, making them his sons just as Reuben and Simon. Here Israel replaces the excluding rule of the tribe by an inclusive one. Ephraim and Manasseh despite their tainted ancestry and culture are fully integrated into Israel to the point of becoming new tribes.

The modern Jewish tribes are not defined by bloodlines. Some choose the life of Jacob and follow the rules of the tribe; they attempt to draw stricter and stricter boundaries effectively withdrawing into a narrower and more exclusivist point of view. They claim authentic understanding of our multiple Jewish heritage. They define new rules to comply with; in order to be “in” you’re required to do this and believe that, whom you can visit and can not. They use censorship to specify what you’re allowed to say or think about kashrut or the State of Israel. Some even attempt to revive some old style bloodline understanding of the tribe. With time, these could end up isolated and disconnected, dispersed islands fading and disappearing.

Others choose the life of Israel; they embrace the mixed multitude on the outskirts. They overlook the space between the tribes. They also accept the fuzzy boundaries of the mixed multitude. Of course there is no use denying the existence of the tribes and their views as movements and schools of thoughts. But people flow between them; many do not fit any single specific one or do not wish to be enclosed in a tribe. Understanding the plurality and multiple ways of being, their aim can become bigger, to maintain the people together, Israel together as one, Am Yisrael Echad.


Rabbi Marc Neiger



1Sifra 14.3, see also Vayikra Rabba 32.3.
2Bereshit Rabba 39.14 on Genesis 12.5.
3Genesis 48.8-22, the text consistently uses “Israel”.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.