The Underdog's Resolution

Parashat VaYechi

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on December 29, 2017

As many of you know, I am an ex-athlete. After I hung up my cleats, I also stopped following sports as closely, but I have to say that when I catch a game over at a friend’s house, my first question is usually: “So who’s the underdog in this game?” From that moment forward, I have my team for the evening.

If you’ve ever seen Rocky, Remember the Titans or Rudy, you know the great thrill that can come from watching the little guy come out on top.

Our portion this week, Vayechi, brings forth the story of yet another underdog. The parashah holds the famous scene of Jacob, blind and on his death bed, blessing his grandson’s, Ephraim and Manasheh, crossing his arms to place his right hand on the younger grandson, Ephraim’s head, and his left hand on Manasheh. This was a controversial move given that Manasheh was the first-born.1

In our tradition, the first-born is supposed to be given priority regarding inheritance. In a literature, like the Book of Genesis, which focuses on the land, progeny, and wealth of Abraham’s descendants, this inheritance is of the utmost importance.

Although, when we take a look back, being the first of the first-born sons hasn’t been the most important thing when it comes to receiving blessings. As we know, many of these biblical men had multiple wives, so the men seemed to pick and choose which “first-born” was going to count as the first-born: Ishmael was actually Abraham’s first son, but priority was given to Isaac. Esau was the first-born, but he winds up selling his birthright to Jacob. Then, of the 12 brothers, it is not Reuben, first in the birth order who receives some great blessing or attention from his father, but Joseph—the youngest of the “first-borns.” Finally, as we close out the Book of Genesis, it is not Manasheh, but Ephraim, who receives a special blessing.

In the case of this parashah, Jacob makes a prophetic proclamation; he has made no mistake in blessing Ephraim with his right hand. Jacob’s declaration of awareness harkens back to earlier chapters, for it was Jacob who dressed up to deceive his blind father, Isaac, to receive a blessing. Confirming his selection, Jacob declares that Ephraim will be greater than Manasheh, the first born. Jacob shares that Ephraim’s offspring will be many. Those well-versed in Hebrew could see that one coming, given that his name shares the same root letters, פרה, as our Torah’s first commandment, p’ru u’rvu be fruitful and multiply.2 Ephraim’s inheritance of progeny, of many offspring, cannot be missed!

Time and time again, the author of Genesis writes all of these stories about the little guy coming out on top. The system is set up for the first-born, who is supposed to have this special relationship with God, receive an inheritance from his father, and take over as head of the family; and yet, as I have mentioned, things don’t always seem to go the way we would think. 

We would think things follow the formula: the first child born, regardless of who the mother is, would be given priority. Yet Genesis is full of thrilling narratives that detail the twists and turns that allow the underdog to succeed. As readers, we expect the birthright to go to Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, and Manasheh, and then the story takes a turn. Why doesn’t our literature value the first-born in these cases? Why is there so much given to the underdog? 

For starters, it makes for a compelling story! We are encouraged that despite our status at any given moment, there is hope for change. What a way to start the Torah! Encouragement about the underdog succeeding is just what a people need when they are about to be the underdogs, exiled into a foreign land, and looking forward to a return home. Just like Rocky, Remember the Titans, and Rudy wouldn’t pull us in like they do without the exciting narrative of an underdog coming out on top, so too has our biblical narrative woven in the thrill of the underdog: from stories of personal inheritance to stories of an entire people inheriting a land.

As a people, much of our history has been about being the underdog. Flash forward from Torah stories and take Chanukah: we just finished celebrating the victory of the underdogs, the Maccabees. Or take the fact that we are here as proud Jews living freely in America in a post-Holocaust world. As an underdog in history, we have been resolute, purposeful, and determined.

So whether you are feeling like an underdog coming into your New Years resolutions or you are preparing to cheer for the underdog in the upcoming college football bowl games, know that there is a strong history of the Jewish underdog behind you. Our ancestors of old recognized the compelling narrative of our people. May we continue to study and learn from our words of Torah, and may they guide us toward a meaningful and fulfilled life.

Shabbat Shalom, an early (or perhaps very late) happy New Year, and may you all be blessed with the strength to accomplish what you seek to achieve in the new calendar year.

(1) Gen. 48:10–14

(2) Gen. 1:28