Each component of the decorations on the Torah has a specific look. The crowns, the breastplate, the robe – each one is designed to remind us of something that we read within the scroll that it covers. Even the yad, the pointer that we use to follow as we read the Hebrew calligraphy, has a particular look. When you look at the end, some simply come to a point, but others look like a hand, a miniature replica of how we would follow along on another piece of paper. And, if you spend enough time around Torahs, and around all of these decorations, you start to notice something: all of these yads have more than just a hand shape in common. They’re all right hands.
As a lefty, this realization always rubbed me the wrong way. There’s not much I do with my right hand. I write lefty, I chop vegetables lefty, I hold phones in my left hand – my right hand is really only there to keep my watch on my arm. With all of this, it feels unnatural that the Torah would tell me to emphasize right over left.
The same happens in this week’s Torah portion, Va-y’chi. It opens with Jacob, who, in realizing he is close to death, asks Joseph to bring his sons Ephraim and Manasseh to be blessed. Joseph, the ever-dutiful son, does so, placing the elder, Manasseh, on Jacob’s right and the younger, Ephraim, on Jacob’s left. In this one move, Joseph shows his continued connection to the traditions and culture of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, despite his forced separation from them and acquired status in Egypt.
Joseph knows the preference of right over left is just as strong as the traditional preference of elder over younger. Despite Joseph’s arrogant and caustic childhood, he remembers that it is the elder who is supposed to receive the first blessing, the larger portion, and the preferential treatment. The same is true for the hand that bestows the blessing. The right hand is thought to be the hand of strength and power, the hand that would connect one person to another through an oath or greeting, and the hand that most enables some to participate fully in society through commerce, travel, employment opportunities, and compassion.
Joseph knows all this and therefore places his elder son by his father’s right hand. All as it should be.
But Jacob knows all of this, too. And Jacob comes from a tradition of reversing expectations, especially as an active participant. Three times previously Jacob had the opportunity to choose the younger over the older. Esau was the elder brother, but Jacob managed to finagle circumstances so that he, the younger, would receive the birthright and blessing. Leah was the elder sister, but Jacob preferred Rachel and her children. Even Joseph was preferred by Jacob, despite his 10 elder brothers. Time and time again, Jacob chose to flip tradition on its head and choose the younger. Time and time again, Jacob’s choice has disastrous consequences.
Now, finally, at 147 years old, Jacob seems to recognize the errors of his younger self. He sees the damage that his choices have wrought upon his family – the only partial reconciliation with Esau, the early death of Rachel, the mistrust, guilt, and pain of his sons. At last, Jacob sees how harmful preferential treatment can be. Elder over younger, younger over elder – either way, someone gets hurt, and Jacob has been the cause of a great deal of hurt.
Maimonides, medieval commentator and Torah scholar, teaches that true teshuvah, true repentance, is only completed when one is presented with the same situation but makes a different choice. In Jacob’s life, he encountered the same opportunities for preferential treatment three times, but never made a different choice. Now, with Ephraim and Manasseh in front of him waiting for their blessings, Jacob has a fourth opportunity for teshuvah, and finally chooses differently. He keeps Manasseh on his right side, and crosses his arms, so that his right hand lays on Ephraim’s head. Each boy receives his blessing, each with a taste of the strength, connection, and tradition suggested by taking sides.
At the end of his life, Jacob finally understands, his future and legacy isn’t guaranteed by who’s older or who’s right. Rather, Jacob chooses a future where each child, each tribe, each blessing is unique and equal. From that generation on, each individual of B’nei Yisrael, the Children of Israel, has something to offer, something that only they have, that contributes to the success of the whole. Jacob moves from blessing Ephraim and Manasseh to each of his sons, prophesizing each of their unique roles and contributions to the Israelite community.
At the end of his life, each of Jacob’s son receives his blessing, each with a taste of what Jacob has learned to be right. It is only when Jacob blesses each son that he is able to breathe his last, and rediscover his own blessing, inherited from his father and grandfather.
At the end of his life, Jacob finally learns that when we stop fighting over who’s right and who’s not, all you’re left with is what’s right.