Writings / Fathers and Sons

The book of Shmot begins with a word that links it to the Book of Bereishit:

And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, every man with his household.

The Book of Shmot could have, even should have begun with "These are the names", a statement delineating a new start; the term "and these" points us back to the end of the previous book. Moreover, the list of the sons of Ya'akov which comprises the first verses of Shmot was already enumerated, and in greater detail, in the final verses of the Book of Bereishit (see chapter 46).

Reuven, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Yissachar, Zevulun, and Benjamin, Dan, and Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. And all the souls who came from the loins of Jacob were seventy souls; for Yosef was in Egypt already. And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. (Shmot 1:1-6)

At the end of the list in Shmot we are told that Yosef, his brothers, and the entire generation pass away. This, too, presents the reader with a problem, for Yosef's death was already reported in the concluding verse in Bereishit. Why should Yosef's passing, though surely not insignificant, be reported twice? The entire verse could have been composed far more economically, had it simply stated that the entire generation perished; certainly, the reader would understand this to include Yosef and the brothers. Why does the Torah enumerate each one?

These questions have been raised by the traditional commentaries, and each focus on various connections between this new book and the previous one to explain the peculiar phrase with which Shmot opens. The Ramban, in his introduction to the Book of Shmot, sets down some general principles regarding the basic nature of each of the two books, Bereishit and Shmot. Here is a paraphrase of his introduction:

The Book of Bereishit, which is thus completed, is the book of creation. The creation refers to both the physical world and the patriarchs, whose very deeds are also a type of creation because they influence and determine the actions of their descendants in the future. Now that the book of creations has been completed we can begin the book of the actions which were hinted at in the previous book. This is the book of redemption, which is not complete until the children of Israel physically and spiritually leave their exile, and return to the spiritual level of the patriarchs. This is only accomplished when the Mishkan is completed and the Sh'china envelops the building. For the patriarchs are the chariot.1

One of the major principles of exegesis employed by the Ramban is the idea that history repeats itself: Jewish history is Jewish destiny. Actions that at first seem random are actually powerful determinates of future episodes. Thus, the Book of Bereishit, a book of beginnings, is actually the foundation for future events. In this same sense, the "book of creation" refers to the physical creation by God and the spiritual infrastructure laid down by the forefathers.

This would explain the linguistic linkage between the books, evidenced by that opening phrase "And these are the names...": Bereishit, the book of the fathers, is a book of theory, a book which contains the sui generis creation of both the physical world and the spiritual paradigms by which that world operates. Bereishit is a book of prototypes, whereas Shmot presents the application of those principles; it is a book of actions. The two books are so closely connected, then, that the linguistic continuation now seems perfectly natural.

Still, the repetitions in the text remain unexplained, especially regarding the death of Yosef, which was mentioned only seven verses earlier, albeit in a separate book. One might assume that literary considerations hold sway in this case: The repetition is necessary for a smooth transition into the next section and as an explanation as to how Yosef was forgotten:

And the people of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. And there arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef.

This is certainly a tenable solution; however there may be a deeper reason why Yosef's passing would necessarily be as integral a part of the Book of Bereishit as it is a part of Shmot.

We have established that the book of Bereishit is the book of the fathers. A basic tenet of our knowledge, even of our identity, is the concept of the Three Forefathers. The question we might ask at this juncture is, what are we to make of Yosef? Is he to be counted among the other sons of Ya'akov, or is he something more?

One major, if not the major theme of the last few parshiot, is the relationship between Yosef and the brothers. On the one hand, we are made aware of a favored status enjoyed by Yosef; on the other hand we are told of the jealousy and enmity that raged amongst the brothers because of this favoritism. While in earlier chapters the favoritism was symbolized by the coat of many colors, in Vay'chi the double portion received by Yosef clarified the precise nature of the favoritism. The reader, even at a very great distance, cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the double portion Yosef receives, especially when considered against the backdrop of the Torah's later legislation against such behavior:

If a man has two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the firstborn son is hers who was hated, then it shall be, when he makes his sons inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the beloved firstborn before the son of the hated, who is indeed the firstborn; But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he has; for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. (Devarim 21:15-17)

According to those who opine that the forefathers observed all Torah laws, this would clearly be problematic. Even if this law is seen in its chronological context, having been set down years later, it still seems to strike a theological blow to Ya'akov's esteem – to have something he did legislated as unacceptable. Moreover, the reference to Ya'akov is unmistakable: the language used in formulation of this law parallels Ya'akov's blessing to Reuven, the spurned firstborn:

"Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power."(Bereishit 49:3)

The key to resolving this conflict lies in understanding why a firstborn receives a double portion. Various rationales have been put forward to explain this law.2One explanation is that the eldest, who often bears the most responsibility, becomes a surrogate parent when looking after the younger siblings. Thus, the Talmud understands that the verse requiring one to honor one's parents includes an oldest sibling:

...It was taught: 'Honor thy father and thy mother,' 'thy father' includes 'thy stepmother','and thy mother' includes 'thy stepfather', and the superfluous vav includes 'thy elder brother'... [Ketuvot 103a]

The oldest brother is seen as a surrogate parent and, as such, he receives the double portion as payment for his efforts. The commentaries explain that Reuven did not live up to his responsibilities, hence Ya'akov was justified in taking away the double portion and dividing it in what he felt was a more equitable fashion. Daat Zekanim Baalei Tosfot, and Seforno, add that Ya'akov did not merely "write Reuven out of the will". Ya'akov had already rejected Reuven earlier in his lifetime, as a response to Reuven's less-than-satisfactory behavior; therefore Ya'akov's favoring Yosef over Reuven does not constitute an affront to the law regarding inheritance for the son of the less-favored wife. Reuven "earned" his status himself, rather than being a victim of his mother's inferior standing.

When we consider the difference between Yosef and Reuven we realize that it was Yosef who really cared for his brothers, and not Reuven. Yosef was known as the "great provider". In fact, we may say that Yosef cared for more people for a longer time than anyone in Tanach! (see Bereishit 42:6, 45:10-11, 47:12, 50:21) Yosef was a father figure for his entire extended family; indeed, he was the provider for all of Egypt and the entire region (Bereishit 41:56,57). Apparently, Par'oh recognized this attribute in Yosef at their first meeting:

And he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, 'Avrech'; and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Bereishit 41:43)

The term Avrech is unclear; some (including Rashi) connect it to berech – knee. Paroh ordered all who saw him to prostrate themselves before Yosef. Rashi offers two other explanations, the first based on the Targum: He called Yosef 'father to the king'. The term Avrech, then, indicates wisdom. Alternatively, Rashi suggests, Par'oh sensed something paternal in Yosef, and he described it with a term that relates to a fatherhood of sorts, a conglomeration of the words av (father) and rach (young or tender): av l'chochma v'rach l'shanim. Yosef was a father in terms of wisdom while yet a young man chronologically.

Similarly, Ya'akov's parting blessing to Yosef contains an analogous observation:

Yosef is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and hated him; But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel.(Bereishit 49:22-24)

The last term, even yisrael is translated as "stone of Israel", yet Rashi teaches that the term even is actually a combination of av and ben, father and son. This is the essence of Yosef: he is both a father and a son. His avocation of provider for others makes him into a father, while biologically he remains a son. This describes the complexity of Yosef. This tension between his dual roles emerges in another episode in Vay'chi. When Ya'akov bequeaths the double portion to Yosef, as befitting a firstborn, the gift is not merely monetary – it is far more profound and far-reaching:

And now your two sons, Efraim and Menashe, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you to Egypt, are mine; as Reuven and Shimon, they shall be mine. (Bereishit 48:5)

If Yosef's sons become like Ya'akov's other son's, enjoying a similar status, where does that leave Yosef? Is he of the same stature as his brothers or has he achieved the status of his father? In a sense, he is both. He is even, at once a father and a son.

This observation gives us greater insight into the struggle between Yosef and the other brothers. The brothers saw Yosef as their father's favorite; in truth, he was more than that. Yosef had transcended his generation, achieving a status similar to that of the previous generation.

These are the generations of Jacob. Yosef. (Bereishit 37:2)

Yosef was an extension of his father, not a separate generation, not a separate entity. Yosef chastised his brothers as a father would; Yosef cared for his brothers as a father would. Reuven never achieved this status. He attempted to show that he was like his father, but in a superficial, perverse, even obscene manner:

And it came to pass, when Yisrael lived in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine; and Yisrael heard it. Now the sons of Jacob were twelve. (Bereishit 35:22)

Reuven's attempts to imitate his father were pathetic: not by caring for his brothers, but by taking his father's concubine. By doing so, he forfeited his unique status:

Reuven, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father's bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch.(Bereishit 49:3,4)

Ya'akov takes Yosef's sons as his own. Reuven, on the other hand, sees his own sons as being distanced from Ya'akov – and perhaps even from himself:

And Reuven spoke to his father, saying, 'Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to you again.' [42:37]

Reuven did not conduct himself as a firstborn; he did not take care of his brothers. Instead, he made superficial attempts to stake his claim: He imitated his father in the realm that he should not have, and failed to emulate him in the realms he should have.

Yosef, though, is both a father and a son; a strange status. Is he equal to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov, or is he simply unequal to his own brothers? What is this unique position of even Yisrael, of being both av and ben?

When we invite the Ushpizin to visit us on Sukkot, Yosef is among them, indicating an association with one of the mystical sefirot and a status which eludes all his brothers. There is even a rabbinic source that introduces Yosef as if he is one of the Patriarchs:

Another exposition of the text, The fruit of the Hadar tree. Hadarsymbolizes Avraham, whom the Holy One, blessed be He, honored (hiddero) with good old age; as it says, And Avraham was old, well-on in age (Bereishit 24:1), and it is written, And honor (v'hadarta) the face of the old man (Vayikra 19, 32). Branches (kapot) of palm-trees symbolizes Yitzchak who had been tied (kafut) and bound upon the altar. And boughs of thick trees symbolizes Ya'acov; just as the myrtle is crowded with leaves so was Ya'akov crowded with children. And willows of the brook symbolizes Yosef; as the willow wilts before the other three species, so Yosef died before his brethren. Another exposition of the text, The fruit of the hadar tree. Hadar symbolizes Sarah whom the Holy One, blessed be He, honored (hidderah) with a good old age; as it says, Now Avraham and Sarah were old (Bereishit 18:11). Branches of palm-trees symbolizes Rivka; just as the palm-tree contains eatable fruit as well as prickles, so Rivka brought forth a righteous man and a wicked one. And boughs of thick trees symbolizes Leah; just as the myrtle is crowded with leaves so was Leah crowded with children. And willows of the brook symbolizes Rachel; just as the willow wilts before the other three species, so Rachel died beforeher sister. (Midrash Rabbah – Vayikra 30,10)

Despite this elevated status, Yosef is not, in the final analysis, considered one of the Avot per se.3 Using the mystical allusion referred to by the Ramban, Yosef does not become the fourth wheel of the Divine Chariot. Yosef's status is as an extension of Ya'akov, not that of an individual Av. The fourth wheel is a status reserved for King David:

We have learnt that the patriarchs are the "holy chariot", and a chariot consists of not less than four. We have further learnt that God joined King David with them so as to form a complete chariot. [Zohar, Bereishit, Page 248b]

We should not fail to note that Yosef is the first one in the Torah who is seen riding in a chariot (Bereishit 41:43). Furthermore, the Hebrew term for chariot –merkava - has as its root R(esh) C(haf) B(et), the same three letters which formthe word B(e)C(ho)R – the Hebrew for firstborn- as well as B(e)R(a)C(h) the Hebrew for "blessing", and B(e)R(e)Ch, "knee" - all themes associated with Yosef.4 These three letters are all "seconds", the Bet is the second in the single digit letters, the Caf is the second in the tens, and the Resh is the second in the hundreds. The numerical value of each of these related words, then, is identical: 222. In other words, the true bechor (firstborn) sees himself as a continuation or extension of something which already exists, and not a creation sui generis. His very nature is an extension of the father; not a replacement of the father, as Reuven perhaps thought, but an extension.

Now we know why the book of Bereishit, the Book of the Fathers, had to end with the death of Yosef: On one level, Yosef was one of the fathers, or at the very least, an extension of Ya'akov. The Book of the Fathers would have been incomplete had the circle of Yosef's life been left unclosed. On the other hand, the book of Shmot begins with the death of Yosef the son.5 His death is nonetheless enumerated separately6 from the other brothers and the rest of the generation, because his status was quite different. He was both a father and a son - even Yisrael.



1. See Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 47:6 "Resh Lakish said: The Patriarchs are [God's] Heavenly Chariot. Thus it is written, And God went up from upon Abraham; again, And God went up from upon him (Bereishit 35:13); further, And, behold, the Lord stood upon him (ib. 28, 13). (return to text)

2. The Chizkuni theorizes that the firstborn was supposed to work in the Temple, and the double portion is the payment they receive for the loss of this privilege. Others explain that the double portion is a reward for turning the parents into parents: Before the birth of the firstborn, the parents were just a couple. Now a fundamental change has transpired, turning these people into parents. (return to text)

3. We are taught that there would only be 3 patriarchs and 4 matriarchs: Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 39:11 "He thus informed him that there would be three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs." (return to text)

4. A meticulous reading of Ya'akov's "blessings" to his sons reveals that only Yosef's "blessing" contains the word blessing. (return to text)

5. This explanation is found in the book Mima'amakim, based on the lectures of Rav Moshe Shapiro; this may have been the Ramban's intention. (return to text)

6. And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. [Shmot 1:6] (return to text)