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You’ve Disturbed My Pretty Universe

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I love when worlds, or in this case universes, collide. Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe mix-up this week strangely parallels another timely mix-up – from this week’s Torah reading. As the book of Genesis comes to a close, Joseph brings his two sons to their grandfather Jacob (renamed Israel) to be blessed. Joseph’s assumption, the assumption throughout the book of Genesis, is that the firstborn deserves the “greater” blessing by nature of his being born first. And so Joseph brings his oldest son Manasseh to Jacob’s right side, the “greater” side, and his younger son Ephraim to Jacob’s left. Yet what unfolds is surprising to both Joseph and the reader:

But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn. (Genesis 48:13)

Instead of blessing the oldest with his right hand, signifying the greater blessing, Jacob instead crosses his arms so that his right hand is upon the youngest. What is Jacob trying to teach Joseph, and us, through this choice?

I believe it is a very subversive message. A major theme of Genesis is that of chosenness and rejection, a theme that begins with Cain killing Abel because Cain’s offering was not accepted. In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one character concludes from this story: “I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is” (p. 329).

To choose is also to reject. Even when it’s not as explicit as taking off someone’s crown to put it on someone else, it’s often experienced that way. As Jerry Seinfeld says about being second-place: “Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You’re the number one loser.” Being rejected is painful, especially when you expected to be chosen.

So how can we mitigate this pain? One way is to try to “amputate” rejection by getting rid of the very act of choosing. I’m not sure how realistic this option is, and I think a world without any choosing is also a world without ambition, accomplishment and recognition.

Jacob offers an alternative approach. Instead of refusing to choose, he challenges the connection between chosenness and greatness. By switching his hands, he transforms this selection process into a confusing and seemingly arbitrary one. Who is being chosen – the one on Jacob’s right side, or the one under Jacob’s right hand? And having just met both Manasseh and Ephraim, what criteria is Jacob using for his choice? This lack of clarity brings to focus the subjective nature of many choices.

As it says later on in the Torah, “God did not set love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people – for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Choice is less about the chosen than the chooser. Appreciating this undermines the inaccurate and often unfair conclusions made about people who are and are not chosen.