Throughout Sefer BeReishit, Ya’akov Avinu seems to make many questionable decisions in the area of the Bechorah, the firstborn birthright. We first see this when Ya’akov Avinu puchases the Bechorah from Eisav in Parashat Toledot. Then, in Parashat VaYeishev, Ya’akov Avinu favors Yosef over his older sons. Finally, in this week's Parashah, Ya’akov Avinu places his right hand over Yosef’s youngest son Ephraim instead of Yosef’s eldest son, Menashe. What prompts Ya’akov Avinu to constantly make these unconventional decisions in regards to the Bechorah?
In Parashat Toledot, Ya'akov Avinu’s passion for the Bechorah is readily apparent. At first glance, it seems as if Ya'akov Avinu exploits both his brother Eisav and his father Yitzchak when they were vulnerable in order to receive the firstborn blessing. When Eisav returns from hunting, the Pasuk describes how tired and hungry Eisav is, and even records him saying (BeReishit 25:32), “Hinei Anochi Holeich Lamut”, “Behold, I am going to die.” The Chizkuni (ibid. s.v. VeLama Zeh Li Bechorah) explains that Eisav never expected to live a long enough life to benefit from the birthright due to his dangerous lifestyle; by the time Yitzchak passed away, he might very well have been killed by a wild animal. So in the eyes of Eisav, as opposed to a delicious lentil soup which offered him instant gratification, a long term reward such as the Bechorah was worthless.
Once Ya’akov Avinu acquires the Bechorah from Eisav, he makes yet another disputable decision to deceive his father Yitzchak into giving him the firstborn blessing intended for Eisav. Sadly, obtaining the Bechorah blessing results in Ya’akov Avinu having to flee from his home to escape Eisav’s murderous hate. Although Ya'akov Avinu’s actions lead to the dispersion of his family, by taking the Bechorah, he ends up making a critical sacrifice that eventually benefits his family and all of Am Yisrael.
In Parashat VaYeishev, we once again see Ya'akov Avinu make a debatable decision with respect to the Bechorah. This time, his decision involves his own children. BeReishit 37:3 records that Ya'akov Avinu loved Yosef more than any of his other sons. This should initially raise some eyebrows, as Yosef was the eleventh son of Ya'akov Avinu-- not his firstborn (but, of course, the first born of Rachel). Once again, we see the drawbacks of Ya'akov Avinu messing with the traditional laws of Bechorah. After Ya'akov Avinu’s affection for Yosef becomes apparent to his other sons, Yosef’s brothers’ jealousy ignites, and they eventually throw him into a pit. Like the earlier cases, it might have seemed as if Ya'akov Avinu was making the wrong decision by favoring Yosef over his older children; but, once again, Ya'akov Avinu demonstrates his ability to see the bigger picture. Later, when Yosef becomes a foreign slave, and later the second-in-command of Egypt, his father’s affection towards him enables him to overcome critical religious challenges.
Rav Yonatan (Bava Batra 123a) also defends Ya'akov Avinu on the point of giving Yosef the Bechorah. According to Rav Yonatan, Hashem permitted the Bechorah to descend from Rachel due to her modesty. As such, the Pasuk states (BeReishit 37:2): “Eileh Toledot Ya’akov, Yosef...”, “These are the generations of Ya’akov, Yosef...” Since Yosef’s name was written right after the words, “these are the generations of Ya'akov,” Rav Yonatan argues that it must be that Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn, received the Bechorah from Ya'akov. Divrei HaYamim I 5:2 also states that Reuven lost the status of the Bechorah due to his illicit actions, and only consequently was it given to Yosef. As such, no foul play by Ya’akov Avinu was involved.
In this week’s Parashah, at the end of Ya'akov Avinu’s life, we see him make one final questionable call in the area of Bechorah. As Ya'akov Avinu’s final days are upon him, he wishes to take advantage of the little time he has left by blessing Menasheh and Ephraim. The Pesukim (BeReishit 48:13-18) describe how careful Yosef was to place Menasheh on Ya'akov Avinu’s right side and Ephraim on his left in order for Menashe to receive the special firstborn blessing. Yet, despite Yosef’s protests, Ya'akov Avinu places his right hand over Ephraim and his left hand over Menasheh.
The Emet LeYa’akov, written by Rav Ya'akov Kaminetzky, explains why Ya'akov Avinu needs to bless Yosef’s sons, as opposed to the children of the other Shevatim, and why he specifically needs to give Ephraim the firstborn’s blessing. Since Yosef’s sons are Ya’akov Avinu’s only grandchildren raised in Egypt, they are integrated into the Egyptian culture and need more Chizuk and inspiration in their Avodat Hashem. Rav Ya'akov Kaminetzky then further explains that Ephraim needs the Bechorah because he is more assimilated than Menasheh. This is proven by simply looking at Ephraim’s name. Unlike his brother Menasheh, Ephraim’s name was made up of the same letters as Pharaoh, and we see throughout the Torah that this is the general custom among Egyptians-- Potiphar, Shifrah, and Pu’ah, for example. Later Pesukim also reveal that Ya'akov places his right hand on Ephraim because Ephraim’s descendants will have a larger role in Bnei Yisrael than those of Menasheh (BeReishit 48:19), as borne out in leaders such as Yehoshua, who descended from Ephraim.
Although it may appear that Ya'akov Avinu makes many miscalculations in his lifetime, a closer look leads one to appreciate Ya'akov Avinu’s reasonings and actions. It seems that Ya’akov Avinu believes that the status of the Bechor is not a given right, but rather a privilege that can be given or stripped based on one’s character and needs. Ya'akov Avinu serves as an inspiration to us all for adhering to his big-picture outlook on life, even if it meant sacrificing some of his relationships in the present.