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Who Are These?

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parshat Vayechi is the last portion in the Book of Genesis. One of the major messages of Genesis has been the theme of the younger brother succeeding while the older brother has failed – here it is Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons, who stands out.

As Jacob nears his death he summons his beloved son Joseph:

And it came to pass after these things, that one told Joseph, "Behold, your father is sick." And he took with him his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. (Genesis 48:1)

Jacob, who will soon bless all his children, begins with Joseph and his progeny:

And Jacob said to Joseph, "God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and blessed me, And He said to me, 'Behold, I will make you fruitful, and multiply you, and I will make of you a multitude of people; and will give this land to your seed after you for an everlasting possession.' And now your two sons, Ephraim 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. And your issue, born to you after them, shall be yours, and shall be called after the name of their brothers in their inheritance." (Genesis 48:3-6)

This blessing, so basic to our consciousness, seems quite simple in its message: These children of Joseph, who are a generation removed from their uncles, have succeeded in transcending their generational limitations. Under normal circumstances, a palatable change can be discerned between one generation and the next. The blessing of Jacob was that as Ephraim and Menashe had not suffered from this phenomenon, neither should subsequent generations of children.


After Joseph's entrance, and his fathers initial blessing, Jacob turns his eye toward the children:

And Israel saw Joseph's sons, and said, "Who are these?" (Genesis 42:8)

After the blessing they have just received, it seems strange that Jacob does not even recognize the beneficiaries of his good will.

This could be attributed to Jacob's blindness. Alternatively, one may posit that the immigrant grandfather Jacob does not recognize his Egyptian born and raised grandchildren. Perhaps they were dressed in their Egyptian aristocratic garb, and Jacob is therefore surprised.

Was Jacob surprised because they were dressed in their Egyptian aristocratic garb?

If this is the case, the blessings do not seem readily understood, unless cognitively Jacob knew of his grandchildren's fidelity to tradition despite the cultural climate of their upbringing, and despite his inability to identify them. Despite being a generation removed, and the products of Egyptian culture, the children of Joseph have remained on the same spiritual strata as their uncles.

Rashi cites a Midrash which sees Jacob's question in a completely different light:

[Jacob] wished to bless them but his clairvoyance eluded him, for Jeroboam and Ahab were destined to descend from Ephraim ... [That is why he said "Who are these?" meaning] from where did these, unworthy of a blessing, descend? (Rashi 48:8 based on Midrash Tanchuma)

According to Rashi, Jacob's question has nothing to do with the people standing in front of him. Rather, the references are not focused merely on the past or present, but events in the future which were yet to unfold. It is with an eye toward the future that Jacob performs an act which confounds Joseph:

And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel's left hand, and Menashe in his left hand toward Israel's right hand, and brought them near to him. And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim's head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Menashe's head, changing his hands; for Menashe was the firstborn ... And when Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand upon the head of Ephraim, it displeased him; and he held up his father's hand, to move it from Ephraim's head to Menashe's head. And Joseph said to his father, "Not so, my father; for this is the firstborn; put your right hand upon his head." And his father refused, and said, "I know it, my son, I know it; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his seed shall become a multitude of nations." (Genesis 48:13-19)

Rashi again, makes a specific identification:

But truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, for Joshua was destined to descend from him. He would inherit the land, and teach Torah to Israel. (Rashi on Genesis 48:19)

The two great descendants of Ephraim, singled out for infamy and greatness respectively, were Jeroboam and Joshua. While Joshua, the successor to Moses who led the Jews into the Promised Land, is certainly better known, the contrast between these two will shed light on Parshat Vayechi and serve as a fitting conclusion to the entire Book of Genesis.


Jeroboam is introduced in the Book of Kings, during the reign of King Solomon. Solomon was a great king, but he allowed his various marriages to lead him astray. Heathen lived in his palaces, and alien practice was introduced into Israel from his very home.

And the man Jeroboam was a mighty man of valor; and Solomon, seeing that the young man was industrious, made him ruler over all the labor of the house of Joseph. (1 Kings 11:28)

The Talmud informs us of the greatness of Jeroboam:

Rabbi Yochanan said: "Why did Jeroboam merit sovereignty? Because he reproved Solomon ... Solomon built Millo, and repaired the breaches of the City of David his father. He said thus to him: 'Your father David made breaches in the wall, that Israel might come up [to Jerusalem] on the festivals; while you have closed them, in order to exact toll for the benefit of Pharaoh's daughter.'" (Sanhedrin 101b)

As a result of Jeroboam's greatness he soon meets a prophet of God:

And it came to pass at that time when Jeroboam went from Jerusalem, that the prophet Ahiya the Shilonite found him in the way. And he had clad himself with a new garment, and the two were alone in the field. And Ahiya caught the new garment that was on him, and tore it in twelve pieces, and he said to Jeroboam, "Take you ten pieces, for thus said the Lord, the God of Israel, 'Behold, I will tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to you. But he shall have one tribe for my servant David's sake, and for Jerusalem's sake, the city which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel.'" (1 Kings 11:29-32)

Because of Solomon's indiscretions he was deemed unworthy to rule over all of Israel. Because of the merit of his father David, the dynasty would not be destroyed, merely temporarily limited in its scope. The role of Jeroboam was to form a caretaker monarchy. Jerusalem the holy city, and the Davidic monarchy which it parallels, are eternal. Their unique status can never be vanquished.

It is interesting how the tide has turned.

In Genesis, it was Judah who had led the united front against Joseph, ten brothers against the one. Now it is Jeroboam, from the tribe of Joseph, who will lead a united front against Solomon from the tribe of Judah. It is also interesting how the garment which is ripped into 12 pieces is called in Hebrew a simla, an inversion of the letters of the Hebrew name for Solomon – Shlomo.


The unraveling of Jeroboam begins when he takes his role as leader and becomes anxious about the upcoming pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If the people do travel to Jerusalem, the erstwhile Davidic monarchy now led by Solomon's son Rehoboam could regain its luster and power, spurred by religious revival of the masses in the streets of her capital.

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in Mount Ephraim, and lived there, and went out from there, and built Penuel. And Jeroboam said in his heart, "Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David. If this people go up to do sacrifice in the House of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn back to their Lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go back to Rehoboam king of Judah." (1 Kings 12:25-27)

At this point Jeroboam comes up with a tragic plan – replace Jerusalem, or at least make it obsolete, redundant.

And the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said to them, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Beit-El, and the other he placed in Dan." (1 Kings 12:28-29)

While his motivations are clear, his behavior is shocking. Why would he possibly wish to replicate arguably the greatest tragedy in Jewish history? At the foot of Mount Sinai the Jews displayed their unfaithfulness to God. Now, outside of Jerusalem, he builds not one calf of gold, but two! Why would he think that the people could possibly be led astray by this cheap imitation of holiness?


In order to understand this choice we must recall that the ox, the mature calf, is the symbol of the tribe of Joseph. The perfidious sale of Joseph is described by Jacob on his deathbed as follows:

"Shimon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. O my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their wanton will they lamed an ox." (Genesis 49:5-6)1

The Zohar describes Joseph's liberation from Egypt using a similar appellation:

Some say that Joseph's coffin had been in the river Nile and Moses removed it from there by the power of the Holy Name, and that he also said: "Joseph, the time of the redemption of Israel has arrived! Arise ox!" (Zohar Shmot 46a)2

Rashi, based on the Midrash Tanchuma, utilizes this tradition to explain the golden calf itself. Aaron melted all the gold, and then someone threw in the magical formula with the words "Arise Ox" inscribed. The result was this ox, the calf of gold.

We see why a calf would be associated with Joseph, but why would holiness and worship follow?

We see why a calf would be associated with Joseph, but why would holiness and worship follow?

Various prophets have had visions of the Divine, the Talmud tells us that even though the description utilized by prophets may vary, often the objective revelation is the same, and the differences in their descriptions stem from the subjective perspectives of the seers.

Rava said: "All that Ezekiel saw, Isaiah saw. What does Ezekiel resemble? A villager who saw the king. And what does Isaiah resemble? A townsman who saw the king.

This insight is intriguing: Ezekiel, who saw visions of God from the refugee camp on the River Kfar, saw the same vision as Isaiah who stood in the sacred Temple.3 Furthermore, the Michilta4 singles out Ezekiel as the prophet of comparison, and his visions of the Divine as the benchmark:

And it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Kfar River, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God ... Also out of its midst came the likeness of four living creatures ... And their feet were straight feet, and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot, and they sparkled like the color of burnished bronze ... As for the likeness of their faces, the four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side; and the four had the face of an ox on the left side; the four also had the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 1:1)

The legs were of a calf and one of the faces was of an ox. We are beginning to understand the temptation of the people to worship the ox.

A second element of Ezekiel's vision completes the tragic error.

Then I looked, and, behold, in the firmament that was above the head of the cherubs, appeared over them something like a sapphire stone, in appearance like the shape of a throne ... And everyone had four faces; the first face was the face of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. And the cherubs were raised. This is the living creature that I saw by the Kfar River. (Ezekiel 10:1-15)

Now we see that the cherub has replaced the ox. We may therefore conclude that the cherubs which Ezekiel saw had the appearance of an ox. The actions of Jeroboam, and the enthusiastic response of the people, become comprehensible in this light.


The Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem had on the top of the Ark of the Covenant two cherbubs. Jeroboam, from the tribe of Joseph, placed one calf in Beit El and a second one in the portion of Dan. When one keeps in mind the geography of Israel we realize that he spanned the Northern Kingdom with the calves/cherubs. Shechem, the place of his throne, was conveniently placed in the center.

The message seems clear: Jerusalem is unnecessary. The entire kingdom is rendered holy with the cherubs/calves encompassing a far greater area than merely the City of Jerusalem. The entire city of Shechem, burial ground for Joseph, the Holy Ox5 himself, now supplants the very limited Holy of Holies.

Jeroboam may stretch his arms out over the breadth of his entire kingdom and declare:

Behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.

These words closely follow the words of Aaron:6

These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

These words take us back to the text in our Torah portion. As we noted at the outset, upon seeing his grandchildren, Jacob asks, "Who are these?"

And Israel saw the sons of Joseph, and he said: "Who are these?" This verse seems to contradict the statement a few verses later that "the eyes of Israel were dim from age, so that he could not see". What this verse really means, however, is that he saw through the Holy Spirit those later descendants of Joseph, Jeroboam and his fraternity. Jeroboam made two golden calves and said: These are thy gods, O Israel (1 Kings 12:28).7 Hence Israel now said, "Who are these?" That is, "Who is he that will one day say these to idols?" From this passage we learn that the righteous see into the distant future and God crowns them with His own crown. (Zohar, Bereishit, 227b)8

Given the tragic conclusion of this episode, the exile of the Ten Tribes, it is difficult for us to fathom why God created this situation where Jeroboam would rule and lead all of Israel astray.

In order to understand this idea we must return to the other positive progeny of Joseph – Joshua.


Fundamentally, Joshua was a devoted student of Moses. It is true that he did rule, but his leadership was a link between his great teacher and the future Davidic monarchy which would emerge. One can imagine that if he were asked what words to write on his tombstone, surely, "student of Moses" would be seen by Joshua as his primary role and legacy. Joshua was content to aid Moses and would have preferred that Moses remain leader of the nation. Joshua is the quintessential student – a great man who is satisfied with an auxiliary position.

Perhaps this description sheds light on Joseph himself. We often see Joseph through the prism of the dreams of his youth, "the man who would be king." On the other hand, in later life, Joseph is always the assistant, the helper, and never the definitive leader. Yes, Joseph achieves greatness, but he becomes Potifar's "right hand man," and the "second" most powerful man in Egypt.

This was the role that Jeroboam should have assumed: content in the ancillary role, the assistant.

Perhaps Joseph saw himself as Joshua to Moses, second to his father, or even to Judah, even though his brothers fail to see him this way.

This was the role that Jeroboam should have assumed: content in the secondary ancillary role, the assistant. After all, his forebears were the younger brothers: Ephraim, his father Joseph, and his father, Jacob, and his father Isaac, and his father Abraham. There is an aspect of modesty involved with being younger which God finds very attractive:

Rabbi Huna observed: "Do we not know from the birth records that he [Ephraim] was the younger? Younger (za'ir), however, means that he minimized (maz'ir) his own importance, and therefore he attained the birthright. Now if the younger is thus rewarded because he minimizes his importance, how much the more so when an older minimizes his importance! Now if the younger is rewarded thus for minimizing his importance, how much the more so when a great man minimizes his importance! (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 97)

Jeroboam's task was to help the Davidic dynasty find its greatness again; instead he pathetically attempted to guarantee his own position.9 This is not what Joseph, or for that matter what Joshua would have done. The Talmud shares with us an incredible teaching which encapsulates this entire concept:

After this thing Jeroboam turned not from his evil way. What is meant by "after this thing?" Rabbi Abba said: "After the Holy One, blessed be He, had seized Jeroboam by his garment and urged him, 'Repent. Then, I, you, and the son of Jesse will walk in the Garden of Eden.' 'And who shall be at the head?' inquired he. 'The son of Jesse shall be at the head.' 'If so,' [he replied] 'I do not desire [it].'" (Sanhedrin 102a)

God grabs Jeroboam by his clothing, just as the wife of Potifar grabbed Joseph by his clothing. We noted previously that the word for clothing used in this context is beged – meaning "betrayal" – alluding to the first betrayal of man which leads back to the rebellion of man in Eden. Joseph, Jeroboam's ancestor, ran from sin. Now, God reminds Jeroboam of his illustrious precursor, offering paradise.

But all that Jeroboam wishes is to know who will capture the spotlight, who will lead. If it is other than himself, even the Messiah son of David, he is not prepared to capitulate. That was his tragedy. He was unwilling to live up to the legacy of the role of Joseph, to aid from a secondary role.

Our Sages tell us that one day a descendant of Joseph will emerge and prepare the way for the coming of the son of David. In order to expedite this process we all must be willing to lead, but know when to step aside. We must recognize the centrality of Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty.

Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains (says Psalms 125:2) – the ascent is arduous. Instead of aiding the people in their climb, Jeroboam created unholy imitations. All spiritual growth takes a difficult path. We must work to help others climb these hills, rather than giving in to frustration and giving up the climb.

For at the end of the climb, a stroll in the Garden of Eden awaits, and we must prove our merit if we are to pass the two sword-bearing cherubs who guard the gates.



    • See also 50:22, and Rashi's comments. (return to text)
    • See Tanchuma Beshalach for the same Midrash with slight variations. (return to text)
    • "And it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Kfar river, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." Ezekiel 1:1 (return to text)
    • Michilta Shira Chapter 3. See Rashi Shmot 15:2 for the more generic tradition. (return to text)
    • The identification between Joseph and an ox or calf may also shed light on the agalot sent by Joseph to Jacob, to assure his father that he was still alive. (return to text)
    • This association with Aaron was surely intentional on Jeroboam's part; he named his children Nadav and Aviya. (return to text)
    • The Zohar connects the words of Jeroboam with the words of Aaron, even though Jeroboam actually did not say eleh, rather hinei. (return to text)
    • According to the Zohar, the problem of the Golden Calf was man trying to understand that which is unfathomable – God. The problem was in being definitive, in pointing to a representation and saying "this is your god." The Zohar stresses that the question "who created the world" must retain an element of the unknown, and all that man can articulate is Berishit Bara Elo-him. The name Elohim links the eleh and the mi, which is part and parcel of the rhetorical question "Lift your eyes heavenward and see who created all this" – Mi Bara Ela. According to the Zohar the Mi and Eleh must be united. Jacob therefore asks Mi Ela when he sees Jeroboam. (return to text)
    • The Talmud has a particularly unflattering etymological connection with his name: "Our Rabbis taught: [The name] Jeroboam [denotes] that 'he debased the nation.'" (Sanhedrin 101b) (return to text)

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