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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

You Send Me--Part 2

So why does God want Pharaoh to do the sending?

The simple answer as far as I can tell is because Pharaoh did the enslaving.

If we take the model metaphor of God as parent and humans His children, it would go something like this:

The parent sees his his one kid beat up on and tease his other kid. The parent can pick up the taunted kid and remove him from the torture directly. But if he does that, the bully kid doesn't really learn anything and, not only that, the tortured kid learns that bullies don't necessarily suffer any consequences. So even if the parent thinks the bully kid will not really change his ways if he is punished, he might still punish him in order to teach the other kid that ill behavior does have consequences.

So it is with Pharaoh, the bulliest of bully kids.

Now, though, why should God reward him for sending the Children of Israel out of Egypt?

This is a bit trickier but I will offer at least one suggestion--one for tonight, anyway. Maybe another one for tomorrow night.

Jewish thought includes a notion of reward as well as punishment. One is to be rewarded for fulfilling God's will just as one is to be punished for violating that will.

Pharaoh was commanded, that is, he was given a mitzvah to send the C of I out of Egypt. Ultimately, he fulfills that mitzvah so he should get a reward for it, right?

Maybe you cringe a bit when you read that. After all, Pharaoh really tortured the C of I and, in any event, only released them after his kingdom was a shambles and his own first born died. Nonetheless, I would still say he is deserving of reward of some kind.

Note that the reward doesn't go to Pharaoh directly but rather to the Egyptian people as a whole (see yesterday's posting). This is true for the other examples brought by the M'chilta as well.

But also remember the parent/child metaphor. If the parent forces the bully child to 'make nice' the parent will want to reinforce that behavior by rewarding the child. You might argue that, again, Pharaoh is not really going to change his ways no matter what God does. But I would then add that, again, another reason for the parent to reward the bully when he finally 'does the right thing' is to show the other child that the parent will reward good behavior.

You might ask, though, if Pharaoh really fulfilled the mitzvah at all since, after all, it was done under duress. Well, we'll look at that tomorrow.

Monday, January 25, 2010

You Send Me...

Last week's parsha, which we didn't really get to discuss much, saw the Children of Israel leaving Egypt at Pharaoh's behest. This week's parsha will follow up on the immediate aftermath of that Exodus including the parting of the Red Sea, complaints by the newly freed slaves about food and water, their first encounter with war and more and more.

This week's parsha opens with this verse:

שמות פרק יג

(יז) וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה:

Exodus 13

17) And it was that when Pharaoh sent the nation that the Lord did not conduct them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was close, for the Lord said, "Lest the nation regret when they see war and they return to Egypt."

For the moment, I want to focus on the word בשלח b'shalach, which is conveniently also the name of our parsha. The root word shalach means 'sent.' This word has played prominently in this story with Moshe and Pharaoh all the way back to when God first appeals to Moshe to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt. 

Before we go all the way back, though, let's ask a question: Why did God need/want Pharaoh to send the Children of Israel out of Egypt anyway? I think it is safe to say that God could have brought them out Himself in any number of ways. 

Even if we set that question aside, it is still worth noting that the verse frames the exodus from Egypt as being effected if not initiated by Pharaoh. The verse could have said "And came about when Moshe led the Children of Israel out of Egypt" or "When God took the C of I out of Egypt" or any number of other variations. 

Apparently the fact that Pharaoh sent the C of I out of Egypt is particularly significant. 

The Sages, in fact, tell us that because Pharaoh sent the C of I out of Egypt, the Egyptians were rewarded! The M'chilta states:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בשלח - מסכתא דויהי פתיחתא 

הפה שאמר גם את ישראל לא אשלח (שמות ה ב) הוא הפה שאמר אנכי אשלח אתכם (שם /שמות/ ח כד) מה שכר נטלו על כך לא תתעב מצרי (דברים כג ח) 

The mouth which stated "I will also not send out Israel"(Ex. 5:2) is the same mouth which said "I will send you."(Ex. 8:24). What reward did he take for this? "You shall not despise the Egyptian." (Deut. 23:8). 

The M'chilta goes on to bring two more examples of Pharaoh's intransigence, his subsequent bending to God's will and ultimately the reward he earned for the Egyptian people because of his capitulation. 

So not only does God somehow need Pharaoh to send the C of I out of Egypt, but he ultimately rewards him for doing so, even though it is clear that Pharaoh carries out God's wishes only after the most extreme duress. 

Tomorrow we'll look at possible reasons for why God has to have Pharaoh do this sending, why the reward and what 'sending' means anyway.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Moshe vs. Avraham

To pick up from where I left off yesterday and hopefully to address ziggi's comment at the same time:

What distinguishes the Patriarch's from others in their time and in later generations was their ability to communicate with God, to seek out a direct relationship with God and ultimately to secure a covenant with God.

Even though the way we see the story in the Torah, God first seeks out Avraham, the way the sages understand it, Avraham first seeks out God when he realizes that the notion of idol worship doesn't make sense.

Later on, there is an implication, which the sages pick up on and amplify, that Avraham kept all of the Torah including rabbinic enactments, even though he was not commanded to do so.

So Avraham's relationship to the Torah is an organic one; that is, he comes to keep the Torah as he came to worship God, by way of his own initiative and highly perceptive abilities.

 This approach reflects a very high spiritual and intellectual level. While it is incredibly admirable, this is not a model that everyone else can emulate. We are not all blessed with those sorts of abilities and, perhaps more to the point, we are not all imbued with the spirit of seeking that Avraham and the other Patriarchs had.

Moshe, by contrast, is clearly sought out by God, even chased and sort of hounded by God. Moshe displays a different sort of critical mind and way of thinking. When confronted by God, Moshe steps back and says maybe I don't want this relationship. He challenges it on every level.

Moshe represents the person who does not figure out the Torah by himself; in fact, he represents the kind of person who challenges each aspect of the Torah as it is presented to him. Whereas Avraham was in harmony with the Torah and how it works in the world in some kind of intuitive way, Moshe needed to understand each aspect of the Torah as it came to him. Thus, I would argue that Moshe is the more appropriate party to bring the Torah into the world. He leads the way for the rest of us who need to understand the Torah in our own way and may not be up to tuning into the Torah on some kind of higher plane.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Live From Budapest!!

I can't get the whole post in just now. I am at a sort of cafe/food emporium which offers free wi-fi and cheap beer (well, most places here offer the latter, at least) but they are going to close any moment!

Maybe I will just wrap this segment up by pointing out that no matter what particular meanings you assign to these various names of God, you will come away understanding that the Torah looks at each name as being unique and meaningful.

The Ibn Ezra in his commentary here understands the name Shaddai to be derived from the root shoded meaning, in this sense, to control as in The God Who Controls Stuff in the Universe.

Rashi understands the name יקוק to refer to that aspect of God which metes out reward and punishment. This understanding of that name is evident from a number of passages later on in Vayikra, and we'll comment more on them there perhaps (if I remember!).

In our context, then, it means that the Patriarchs didn't personally experience all of the reward that God promised them and yet they didn't kvetch and challenge God as Moshe did.

And here is the contrast, then, between Moshe's argument with God and Avraham's argument with God about the destruction of S'dom and Amora: Avraham's argument was essentially selfless--he had nothing to personally gain by the halting of the destruction nor nothing personally to lose by letting the destruction take place (except maybe losing his nephew Lot, but that gets taken care of anyway).

Moshe, though, when he argues with God here is, of course, concerned primarily with the welfare of his fellows but he is likewise concerned that his own efforts were for naught or worse. That is, he expresses real doubt about God's direction here and feels that in some way God may have slighted him. It is not a bad argument  in some ways and I would argue myself that it may reflect one of the reasons that Moshe was chosen to be the vehicle for receiving the Torah itself whereas the Patriarchs didn't get that particular honor. We'll pick up on this next time.

Night all!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What's In a Name?

Sorry about the long hiatus! I'll try to finish up a couple of points from last week and then we'll move on to this week.

In the verses we quoted in the last posting, we saw three names of God:

1)    יקוק The four letter name of God
2)    א-להים E-lohim
3)    א-ל ש-די Eil Shaddai

Note: Because of the holiness of God's four letter name in particular, it is not written out properly (which would find the letter ה where I have substituted the letter ק)  except when written in a Torah scroll,  or printed in a book of learning or a siddur where it is unlikely that it will be defaced. The sages learned from the Torah that God's name, once written, must never be erased, even partially. For essentially the same reason, I have modified the writing of the other names of God mentioned in our passage by placing a hyphen between letters.

In classic biblical criticism, at least the little I know, the first two names on this list are used by two different authors of the Torah. Very nifty but that doesn't explain much about the meanings of the names as used in the context of our verses.

In Chapter 6:1 God addresses Moshe as יקוק. Immediately after in the next verse, God addresses Moshe as א-להים but explains to Moshe that He is יקוק.  This is a bit odd for two reasons I can see right off:

1)    If He is indeed יקוק then why doesn't He speak to Moshe as יקוק? The verse says that א-להים spoke to Moshe, not יקוק.
2)    God already told Moshe that He is יקוק back in Exodus 3:15. In fact, He tells Moshe that “this is My name forever and this is My rememberance from generation to generation.”

God then goes on to tell Moshe that He appeared to the Patriarchs with “Eil Shaddai” whereas the name יקוק he did not 'make manifest' to them. This is also a bit odd as God spoke to each of the Patriarchs using the name יקוק.

The midrash and the commentaries all deal with these issues as well as the issues I brought up in the last posting.

For today, I just want to point out that the Torah here (and elsewhere!) makes a big deal about God's names. The notion that any name is significant is seen pretty early on in the Torah when God has Adam (Genesis 2:19,20) give names to the various animals He created. Later passages also attest to the significance of names. So it is understandable that God's names would be important, too.

We might ask, though, if God is singular and completely unique, why should He have more than one name?

More soon!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

And While We're At It--Kvetching by Moshe

שמות פרק ה
(כב) וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְקֹוָק וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי:(כג) וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ הֵרַע לָעָם הַזֶּה וְהַצֵּל לֹא הִצַּלְתָּ אֶת עַמֶּךָ:
Exodus Chapter 5
(22) And Moshe returned to God and he said, “Lord, why have you made it bad for this nation—why have you sent me? (23) Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, You have made it bad for this nation and You have surely not saved your nation.

Moshe asks two questions of God:

1)Why did God make it worse for the Children of Israel and
2)Why did God send him (Moshe) on this mission?

Moshe also makes two claims against God:

1)Ever since he (Moshe) spoke in God's name to Pharoah, God has made things worse for the Children of Israel and
2)God has not saved the Children of Israel.

The next passage has God's response. We will want to see if and/or how God responds to Moshe's questions and claims.

What we see first of all is that various names of God are used in the next few verses.  Although we see different names for God in other places, in this particular context at least some of those names provoke particular interest here because God Himself (or Herself—can't get into that whole bit now) points out and seems to differentiate between names. To wit:

[פרק ו] (א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה עַתָּה תִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה יְשַׁלְּחֵם וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה יְגָרְשֵׁם מֵאַרְצוֹ: פרשת וארא (ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְקֹוָק:
(ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם:

[Chapter 6](1) And God יהוה said to Moshe, “Now you will see that which I will do to Pharaoh—for with a strong hand he will send them and with a strong hand he will expel them from his land. Parshat Vaera (2) And the Lord spoke to Moshe and He said to him, “I am God יקוק.”
(3) And I appeared to Avraham and to Yitzchak and to Yaakov through Eil Shaddai אל שדי whereas my name God יהוה I did not manifest to them.”

Technical note:

1)Bear in mind that Chapter divisions in the Torah (and the rest of Tanach) were made by Christian monks in the middle ages and are not part of the original Hebrew text. 
2)The divisions between the weekly Torah portions were established by custom and are also not necessarily reflected in the way the text is written or laid out.

The point being that when we try to read the text in a way that maintains continuity, we need to read the last verses from the end of Parshat Shmot (the ones where Moshe is complaining) along with the beginning verses of Parshat Va'era. It is important to note, though, that in an actual Torah scroll, there is a large space placed between the end of Chapter 6 v.1 and Chapter 6 v.2.

More soon....

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Back to the Parsha--For Now, At Least

Last week saw me prattling about the Oral Torah and all and I neglected to speak about the Parsha! Well, to bring us up to speed, last week's Parsha told about how the Children Of Israel become enslaved in Egypt, Moshe's birth and ultimate appointment as God's point man to take said Children out of Egypt and Moshe's first confrontation with Pharaoh.

Regarding the latter, Moshe goes to Pharaoh fully thinking that Pharaoh is going to roll over and let his (i.e. Moshe's) people go. Not only does Pharaoh not let them go, but he makes life more difficult for them.

So Moshe complains. To God.

One can understand Moshe's feelings here. He was pretty reluctant to go on this errand for God to begin with but at least, he must have figured, his brethren will be better off if they can leave. But Moshe's demands just make working conditions for the Hebrews even worse! Moshe feels 'used,' perhaps, or at the very least slighted by God. And last week's parsha ends with Moshe pointing this out to God.

Our parsha this week opens with God's reply. Clearly, God was up for this and had somethiung prepared to tell Moshe already. His reply has something to do with His names. And we will talk about those names and a bit of Biblical Hebrew grammar tomorrow.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

More Oral Thoughts Which I Am Writing Down

Consider what happened after the redaction of the Mishnah. The sages of the time generally accepted that the Oral Torah as such was now 'canonized' in some way and could no longer be disputed. Of course, the Mishnah and attendant literature (Tosefta, Midreshei Halacha, etc.) preserved differences of opinion about various matters but those disagreements were also preserved as part of the Oral Torah.

In any event, rabbis and students continued their learning, presumably in a way similar to the time before the Mishnah was written down, using what we call Talmudic logic. This method of Talmudic thought/logic was preserved in so many words in the Gemara, both in the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Y'rushalmi. Mainly the Gemara is preserving discussions.

One might have thought that the point of the Gemara, then, was to preserve the methodologies which were employed by the sages of the time to understand the Mishnah; thus, the Gemara would have stood for all time as another way of preserving the Oral Torah--by preserving those kinds of discussions. The Gemara did not seek to necessarily decide halacha in every instance but it did seek to probe and understand the Mishnah as well as it could.

However, by the time the Talmuds were redacted (if that is the proper term-a more complicated issue) it was understood that the discussions of the Gemara were not just exemplary of how discussions of the Oral Torah should go; rather those discussions were viewed as authoritative understandings of the Mishnah. By preserving the Talmud with the Gemara, the Oral Tradition came to another layer of cooling off. From the time of the Talmud, new conversations about much of the Mishnah was stifled in favor of the recorded conversation of the Talmud.

I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with the discussions of the Talmud--not at all! They are brilliant on many levels and endlessly fascinating. But I am pointing out that once they were written and given the stamp of approval by the later redactors of the Talmud, they had the effect of stifling new and creative discussion, at least to some degree.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Oral Shmoral--Why Should Anyone Care?

Okay, I lied--I am not going to fill in the historical watersheds which, to my mind, contributed to a slow freeze on Torah discussion--at least not quite yet.

I want to talk for a moment about why I care about this issue at all.

Since I was first exposed to learning Gemara back when I was a wee lad of nine, I have always been fascinated with the story of how Talmudic literature came to be. I always accepted the notion that the Mishnah and the discussion of the Mishnah as found in the Gemara essentially preserved the Oral Torah that Moshe received at Sinai. I studied the classic texts that deal with notions of the Oral Torah and how it came down to us (אגרת דרב שרירא גאון, הקדמת הרמב"ם לפיהמ"ש ועוד) and found them helpful an interesting.

Some questions arose, though. Some questions are conceptual in nature like if the Oral Torah was passed on with precision how did it come to be written down in a different language? There are others which I will raise in later posts.

But I am also disturbed by the reality of what I see in various parts of the Orthodox world. In my short lifetime, most of which has been spent in that world, I have seen what I think is a perversion of the notion of Oral Torah on many levels. Aside from Rabbi Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik's astute observations regarding how the Jewish world transitioned from a mimetic tradition to a textual tradition ( I feel that there has been a general trend toward anti-intellectualism in the Orthodox world.

The notion of Torah Mi'Sinai has come to mean to many that Moshe got a copy of a typical 21st century rabbinic library from God. In part because of this notion, halachic and philosophical discussions have become more and more limited because, after all, everything which has been written until now by recognized authorities is what Moshe received at Sinai.

For this reason and others I feel I must try to understand the nature of the Oral Torah based on the information I have from the sources which speak about it--on its own terms, if you will. I want to examine what happened to those ideas and how we got where we are and where we might be able to go yet.

I need to point out for a bit of balance that the Orthodox community by and large is the only segment of the Jewish world which continues to study the Torah and the Talmud and related texts in a consistent and serious way. The other streams of Judaism certainly study them but the typical Reform or Conservative Jew has much less exposure to learning than the typical Orthodox Jew. In Israel the study of these texts has long been the purview of the Orthodox with the secular largely rejecting serious study.

Fortunately, there is movement among more and more of the secular Jews in Israel to reclaim these texts--to study them seriously and perhaps look at them in a new light.

I am rambling--but we'll talk about these things as I continue.

Next posting will get back to how the discussion started to slow down and freeze up.

What Happened to the Oral Torah and What Does This Have to do With Parshat Shmot?

Okay, I am not sure how to answer the second question in the title except to say that according to the midrash, the Children of Israel held on to certain oral traditions during their time in Egypt. This adherence to those traditions became key to their redemption. So maybe that is why I chose to digress on this issue here.

Someone once asked me: If this oral tradition really existed all the way back to the time of the Torah, why don't we see the Torah speak about it?

The simple answer is, well, it was an oral tradition--it doesn't necessarily come up in a written text.

However, I also pointed out that even in the Torah itself there are allusions to an oral tradition. We see, for example, that in Avraham's argument with God over the destruction of S'dom and Amora (Genesis 18:23-33) that Avraham challenges God's decision by implying that if God killed innocent people along with guilty ones, He would not be doing משפט mishpat (justice). This would not be such a strong argument unless Avraham knew what God considered to be justice and therefore implies that Avraham had a tradition in this regard. Merely referring to what might have been notions of natural law might not have been so convincing to the Ruler of the Universe. And, indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, one of the mitzvot given to Adam and then to Noah was for mankind to set up judicial systems. 

There are several other examples, especially later in Tanach but we'll leave that question for now.

My real question is: What happened to the Oral Torah?

We know that the primary encapsulation of the Oral Torah came to be written down first in the Mishnah around the beginning of the second century CE. Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and his court were concerned, given the political climate and social realities of the time, that because the Jews were being pushed around and scattered that the oral tradition would be lost. In order to save it, they decided to write it down.

One of the salient features of the Mishnah is that it was written in a very terse language, almost a kind of code. The nature of the Mishnah is that one cannot simply read it in order to understand it. Much of the Mishnah is written in partial sentences and generally without clear references relating each point back to the written Torah. In order to understand it properly, it must be discussed.

So built in to the Mishnah is the notion that an oral aspect remains. It is a marvelous and unique sort of document in that regard.

It is clear to me that Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was trying very hard to preserve as much of the oral nature of this tradition as possible.

However, the downside of this decision is that, well, the oral tradition came to be written in some form. We noted yesterday that a written text becomes fixed in a way that an oral text does not. The writing of the Mishnah, therefore, began a process of slowly freezing discussion that continues to this day.

There are several important points along the way from the Mishnah to present. I will mention some of them in my next posting.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Some Thoughts About Oral Tradition

Jewish tradition has it that there are two aspects to the Torah: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah. I have a little video about some of that here:

I want to point out that the notion of the Written Torah can be defined simply as the words of the Torah in ink on parchment as seen in a Torah scroll. The words do not speak for themselves. There is no embedded MP3 player nor are there even vowels or the markings that indicate how to chant the verses. No indication is made to distinguish where one verse ends and the other begins.

By contrast, the original Oral Torah was everything one could know about the Written Torah (plus some other things, as well--more about that another time). The Oral Torah told you how to read the words, how to separate the verses, what the words mean and deeper and deeper levels of meaning.

According to this tradition, Moshe received both the Written and Oral Torah from God and passed these down to the Children of Israel. Each word of the Oral Torah was supposed to be memorized and passed on exactly as received.

One could ask, then, if the Oral Torah was a fixed tradition, why not write it down also? It doesn't seem reasonable that it was given orally just as an exercise in our abilities to commit long texts to memory.

I think that to understand this, we need to consider the nature of written text and oral communication. A written text such as the Torah is fixed. I am careful here not to use the word static--it just is what it is. The reason it is not static per se is because there is an oral tradition that goes with it.

An oral tradition, even if the words are passed down precisely, is by its nature affected by each person that learns it and passes it down. Each person will give the memorized bits their own intonation, their own body language, their own personality.

As the Jewish people moved to different places and cultures, the Oral Tradition inevitably was affected by those changes. Witness the Mishnah, the embodiment of the Oral Tradition, although written in Hebrew, that Hebrew is not the same as Torah Hebrew. The Gemara records discussions primarily in Aramaic.

So we understand that even those rabbis who were most concerned with preserving the Oral Tradition with great precision understood that the Oral Tradition was always dynamic.

Ultimately, whatever one says about the meaning of the Written Torah does not thereby change the Written Torah. It is what it is and it never changes. However, without saying what it means, without reading the words, it has no practical meaning.

Some people say that the Written Torah is the culmination of an earlier Oral Tradition. Regardless of such theories, the reality is that what we have is a written document, unchanging as such. Jewish tradition was interested in preserving that basic text but at the same time promoting a never ending dialogue about its meaning. In the end, though, what we say about the Written Torah may tell us more about ourselves than the text we attempt to understand.

For many centuries, much care was taken to preserve as precisely as possible the text of the Written Torah. But what exactly happened to the Oral Tradition? More thoughts on that next time.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Blessing on Your Head

In the last moments here before Shabbat, let me just point out a few more things to consider:

In the last posting we see that Yaakov takes his grandsons into his hands and then blesses Yosef. What exactly does that mean? It is possible that Yaakov saw his grandsons as extensions of Yosef and by blessing them he also blesses Yosef. Note that he gives his grandsons their blessing just a few verses later.

We see also that Efraim is placed before M'nashe, not in the order of their birth. This continues a long tradition found in B'reishit most notably with Yaakov himself being the last recipient, albeit through deception, of a blessing meant for the first born. Yaakov gives the blessing knowingly, though. He clearly gives a double portion to Yosef by giving his two sons a blessing and a portion in future inheritance.

But by giving the blessing to the older of his two grandsons, Yaakov is placing the younger before the older twice: That is, he has now place Efraim before M'nashe but by giving them each a blessing he is also placing Yosef before R'uven.

This is particularly interesting because in previous generations, the younger who got the blessing was the second oldest (Yitzchak over Yishmael, Yaakov over Esav) while here there are many brothers who were born after R'uven before Yosef was born, yet he gets the blessing.

What was so special about Yosef in Yaakov's eyes? Obviously, the first point is that Yosef is Rachel's oldest son and Yaakov only really loved Rachel from his four wives.

Beyond that, though, Yaakov identified with Yosef. The midrash at the beginning of parshat Vayeshev lays this out to begin with by noting that what happened to Yaakov also happened to Yosef. Yaakov's brother hated him, Yosef's brothers hated him. Yaakov's brother wanted to kill him, Yosef brothers wanted to kill him. Yaakov had to go into exile, Yosef had to go into exile. And so on...there are many other similarities.

So now when it comes time to give these blessings, it is clear that Yaakov will favor Yosef because he sees Yosef as an extension of himself.

Yaakov goes on to tell the brothers what will happen to them in the future and blesses them, as well. The parsha goes on to relate what happened when Yaakov passes away and after and leaves off with the death of Yosef and his burial in Egypt.

We never really find a reason why the brothers didn't go back to Canaan after the famine. However, it is clear that the fact that they don't plays nicely into the prediction of the diaspora given to Avram, as we noted previously.

Shabbat shalom!