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A timeless blessing seen through a work of art: Parashat Vayechi

Every Friday it is traditional to bless children around the Shabbat table. “יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה” “(May) God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (Genesis 48:20).

Dr. Shula Laderman, Lecturer of Judaism and the Arts at Midreshet Schechter, teaches us about this blessing and its origins, explaining that an entire chapter of Genesis is devoted to the manner in which Jacob and Joseph spar over the blessing. She narrates the text of the parasha and compares it to a painting by artist Avner Moriah and his interpretation of the text.

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After living in Egypt for seventeen years, Jacob knows that he is about to die. The Bible tells us that “Joseph was told ‘your father is ill,’ so he took with him his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh” (Gen 48:1) to visit his father. When told of his guests, “Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed” (Gen. 48:1). He is very moved for he knows that this will be the last time his eyes will rest on his beloved son Joseph. We also know that he will take this opportunity to bless Joseph’s sons, whom he does not recognize at first, asking,   “Who are these?” (Gen 48:8).

Why does Joseph have to be told that his father is ill and why does Jacob not know his grandsons? Why is the boys’ blessing so important that an entire chapter is devoted to it?

From the opening verses of Genesis 48 we understand that Joseph had neither the time nor the wish to visit his father often, so Jacob did not know his grandsons, who were born “Before the year of the famine” (Gen:41:50). Jacob, moved by the visit, recalls his past and talks about God’s promises to him in Beth El and about Joseph’s mother, Rachel, who died on the way to Canaan. Perhaps mentioning Rachel at this point accounts for why Jacob wanted Joseph, as Rachel’s firstborn, to have double portion, which will come to pass when he blesses Joseph’s sons as he would his own. “Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see” (Gen. 48:10). Joseph brought his sons close to his father, with Menasseh, the older of the two, facing Jacob’s right hand and Ephraim facing his left for Jacob to bless them, but Jacob crossed his arms and placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Manasseh’s.

In Avner Moriah’s painting we see a nearly blind Jacob looking not at the boys, who are crouching in front of the bed, but off into space. Jacob’s yellow arms are crossed over their heads. Joseph standing on the side is extending his arm toward his father’s crossed hands in protest. Jacob’s bedroom is imaged as a royal space with red walls, reminiscent of ancient villas in Pompei, and it is clear that although he might not have been close to his father, Joseph provided for him in an exemplary fashion. A wide opening on the left marks the entrance and a window at the back looks out on the pyramids. In the distance, next to the rightmost pyramid we can see the spiral symbol that alludes to the spirit of God and two small standing figures.

The picture is suggesting that in blessing the boys Jacob is turning to God’s spirit and to the figures of Abraham and Isaac seen in the distance, as he says: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked…” (Gen. 48:15). Jacob knows that God always protected him and now he is asking the same for Joseph’s sons. In crossing his arms over their heads he is replicating  Isaac giving him Esau’s blessing. Jacob blesses his grandsons saying: “The angel who has redeemed me from all harm bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac… ” (Gen 48:16). It is clear that the blessing of the boys is important enough to justify an entire chapter as Jacob uses the occasion to  convey Abraham and Isaac’s benediction to Joseph’s sons, together with a plea that God will take them back to the land of their forefathers.

Shavua Tov from Schechter!

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an Interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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