“The Sad Destiny of the Firstborn Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

A prominent feature of the book of Genesis is the struggle for family leadership between the firstborn and the younger siblings. The “strugglers” include: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Judah, Joseph and Judah, Menashe and Ephraim.

It is fascinating that, in each case, the younger child emerges as the victor over the biological firstborn, indicating that the birthright is not a factor of chronological age, but rather a factor of the spiritual character of the child who is eventually chosen to serve as the firstborn.

In his popular Bible study guide entitled, Sh’aylot V’nosim B’Tanach (Questions and Themes in Bible) Professor Menashe Duvshani analyzes these filial rivalries. In parashat Bereshith, Cain, the first human child, is born to his parents, Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, G-d prefers his younger brother, Abel. Even after Abel’s death at Cain’s hand, the birthright is transferred to Seth, the youngest son. The family of the firstborn, Cain, as well as his descendants, are ultimately lost in the great flood.

Despite being the first born son of Abraham, Ishmael does not emerge as the leader. Instead, the birthright passes to Isaac. It is through Isaac, the son of Sarah, that G-d promises Abraham that the Divine destiny shall pass. Ishmael subsequently becomes estranged from both his family and from the land, settling outside of the land of Israel.

Although Esau was born before his twin brother Jacob, the birthright passes to Jacob because he was considered the more worthy child. Jacob is blessed twice by Isaac, first unwittingly (when Isaac intended to bless Esau), with blessings of economic success and temporal power over nations. The second blessing, that Isaac knowingly blesses Jacob, passes the Divine Abrahamic covenant on to Jacob (Genesis 28:4).

Despite being the first born child of Jacob, Reuben nevertheless loses the birthright, as it passes to Judah, another of Jacob’s firstborn children. Reuben is thought to have committed three improper acts which cause him to fall out of favor: 1. After the death of Rachel, Reuben moved his father’s bed into his mother Leah’s tent, an act that was regarded as violation of his father’s bed (Genesis 35:22). Even on his deathbed, in his blessing to his children, Jacob is still angry, recalling Reuben’s grievous sin, and transfers the birthright from Reuben. 2. Reuben, the eldest son, failed to save Joseph from the hands of his brothers, and was unable to stop the sale of Joseph to the Midianites. 3. When Jacob’s children wish to go down to Egypt to buy more food, Jacob refuses to allow Benjamin to go with them. At that time, Reuben suggests to his father, Genesis 42:37, אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ,  You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you. Jacob is appalled by Reuben’s irrational suggestion, yet, subsequently, readily accepts Judah’s offer to act as surety for Benjamin.

By accepting full responsibility for his brother Benjamin, Judah emerges as the leader of his brothers. It is therefore Judah whom Jacob chooses to send ahead to Goshen, before they arrive in Egypt (Genesis 46:28), and who represents the brothers before Pharaoh (Genesis 44:14). The birthright is thus conferred upon Judah.

The rivalry for the birthright continues, as Judah now struggles with Joseph. The competition between Judah and Joseph that takes place in Egypt, is, in fact, representative of the long historic struggle between these two tribes that occurs in future generations, as to who was to emerge as the supreme leader of Israel.

In later years, during the times of the judges and the kings, the tribe of Ephraim (the descendants of Joseph’s oldest son) saw itself as a chosen tribe, since Joshua, the great conqueror of the land, was of the tribe of Ephraim. During the reigns of King David and Solomon, the struggle between Judah and Ephraim abated, but eventually resumed, resulting in the split of the kingdom after the death of King Solomon.

Obviously, when Joseph reigned over Egypt, the hand of Joseph was superior, confirmed by Jacob who doubled the tribal inheritance of Joseph by converting the tribe of Joseph into two separate tribes (Genesis 48:5). In Jacob’s final message to his children, Judah and Joseph receive the most extensive and generous blessings.

In the time of King David, the monarchy was firmly in the hands of the tribe of Judah. However, according to Chronicles I, 5:1-2, the birthright remained with Joseph.

Although the reason is not stated, Jacob transfers the birthright from Joseph’s oldest son, Menashe, to the younger son, Ephraim (Genesis 48:19), predicting that Ephraim will be greater than Menashe.

Clearly, every single firstborn child in the book of Genesis winds up on the short end. The fact that the birthright is always transferred from the older son cannot be merely coincidence. Apparently, the Torah wishes to teach that one does not merit the birthright simply by accident of birth. The privilege of the birthright belongs to the child who merits it, even though that child may be younger.

A similar pattern is seen with the eventual chosenness of the People of Israel, who were certainly not the oldest among the nations. When the Jewish people emerged from Egypt, dozens of other sovereign states already existed, far more powerful and more numerous than Israel. These nations, like Egypt, already possessed developed lands and had created advanced civilizations. The Edomites even had an established monarchy. Why then did G-d choose the People of Israel, a numerically small nation who had been lowly slaves to Pharaoh? Apparently, to teach that G-d does not choose based on external or physical merits, but rather uses a higher yardstick.

The principle of spiritual chosenness is confirmed by the story of the selection of King David as king, when the prophet Samuel is sent to Jesse in Bethlehem to choose a successor to King Saul. At the behest of G-d, he does not choose the handsome and valiant first born, Eliav, but instead chooses David, the youngest of Jesse’s many sons. In fact, scripture relates that G-d instructs Samuel not to choose Eliav despite his stature and comeliness, Samuel I 16:7, כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַהשׁם יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב, because the human being can only see with his eyes, but G-d can see into the heart.

The Divine method of choosing continues until this day. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 106a), רַחֲמָנָא לִבָּא בָּעֵי, G-d’s utmost desire is to feel the yearnings of the hearts of His creations. He therefore chooses to reward those followers who merit the Divine blessing on the basis of their inner spiritual commitment, faith and sincerity.

May you be blessed.

The intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.