A switch rooted in nature

There are many commandments in Judaism that are easy for us to fulfill, but there are also ones hard for us to understand and perform.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
INN: Daniel Malichi

This week’s parsha tells of three encounters that Yaakov (Jacob) had prior to his death: the first was with Yosef (Joseph) at the beginning of the parsha in which Yaakov asks to be buried in Eretz Yisrael. The second was when Yaakov became ill and he calls Yosef and his sons Ephraim and Menashe in order to bless them. And the third is the final farewell in which Yaakov blesses the 12 tribes.

We will focus on part of the second encounter: “And Yosef took both of them, Ephraim on his right to the left of Yisrael (Yaakov), and Menashe on his left to the right of Yisrael and approached him. And Yisrael stretched out his right hand, and rested it upon the head of Ephraim, who was the youngest, and his left hand upon the head of Menashe. He switched his hands, as Menashe was the firstborn. And Yosef saw that his father had laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, and it displeased him, and he reached for his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head and onto the head of Menashe. And Yosef said to his father, ‘It is not that way, my father, for he (Menashe) is the firstborn, put your right hand upon his head.’ And his father rebuked him, and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. He (Menashe) shall be a nation, and he will grow, but his younger brother will be greater than him, and his progeny will fill all of the nations.’ And he blessed them, saying: ‘In you Israel shall be blessed, saying “May G-d make you as Ephraim and as Menashe” ‘, and he put Ephraim before Menashe.

We obey these [hard to fulfill] commandments because we have the ability to overcome our natural inclinations to do the will of G-d. This is a fundamental Jewish trait that we inherited from our ancestors.

If we look at the verses, it seems that in the Torah it is not explicitly stated why Yaakov decided to elevate the younger brother Ephraim, over the older brother Menashe. Rashi explains that the reason is because Yehoshua (Joshua) is descended from Ephraim, and he gives three examples of the greatness of Yehoshua, in whose merit Ephraim was considered more important than Menashe:

Yehoshua was the leader who brought the nation into the land of Israel, and divided up the Land among the tribes, Yehoshua was the one who continued the chain of Torah from Moshe onwards as it says in Pikei Avot: “Moshe received the Torah on Mt. Sinai and gave it over to Yehoshua and Yehoshua gave it over to the elders ...”, and Yehoshua asked for a world famous miracle during the war against the Amorites when he made the sun stand still in the sky for several hours so that there would be light and Israel would have more time to strike at their enemies.

The first two reasons are understandable because they show that Yehoshua, who was descended from Ephraim, in fact became a leader of the people of Israel. He was a military leader who conquered the Land of Israel which is our heart and soul, and he was a spiritual leader who continues the Torah which is the center of all life for the people of Israel. But what is the great importance of the miracle of his stopping the setting of the sun?

Parashat Vayechi ends the book of Bereishit, which begins by telling of the creation of nature. Nature is governed by strict laws which cannot be changed. After the creation of nature, we are told about the creation of man. Man also has a nature which affects him, such as innate traits, genetics, parenting, environment and more. But unlike the world which is enslaved to the laws of nature, man has the ability to overcome his natural pulls to do the will of G-d. That is what separates mankind from the rest of nature: his ability to choose to do the will of G-d even when his natural tendencies draw him in other directions. When Yehoshua succeeded in controlling the sun, the queen of the natural world, he taught us about mankind’s special ability, not only to defeat the physical laws of nature, but to defeat his own natural inclinations, in order to do the will of G-d.

We can also see this concept in the order of the brachot that we say before reciting Shema during Shacharit. The first is the bracha of “Creator of the Luminaries”. In this blessing we praise G-d for the wonderful world of nature that he created. But immediately after that blessing we move on to the bracha of the greatness of the people of Israel. The nation of Israel is above nature.

We are a people who can do the supernatural in order to fulfill G-d's will. We are able and willing to sacrifice our natural instincts and inclinations for G-d's sake, if needed. And after saying these blessings, we move on to “Shema Yisrael” and accept the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven with all our heart and soul. True acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven is the willingness to give up our nature for G-d.

Of course, in the deepest depths of ourselves, we are not superseding our nature, because the deepest nature of a Jew is to do the will of G-d at any time and with anything required of him. This world is a complex world. There are many commandments in Judaism that are fun and easy for us to fulfill, but there are also commandments that may be difficult for us to understand and perform.

The trials in life may be easy ones, or they may be more difficult, or even be huge trials that pertain to the very essence of our lives. But what all trials have in common is our ability to overcome our natural inclinations and do the will of G-d. This is a fundamental Jewish trait that we inherited from our ancestors, and may we be privileged to continue in their way and pass it on to future generations, until that happy day comes when we will feel at every moment that G-d's will is natural to us, and that it is our deepest nature to fulfill it.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai Rabbinical Center and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in