“And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth” Genesis 48:16


Early in Genesis we met the first family and then observed the first murder of Abel by Cain. Each generation has brought a new set of warring brothers: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. One is chosen, the others rejected.

A change is needed as the family becomes a nation. From here on everyone will be staying in the covenant. Jacob, on his deathbed, calls for his family and offers blessings, starting with his grandsons — Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph. This time he confers on both brothers the same blessing the hope that they become teeming multitudes (vayidgu larov).

The verb, vayidgu, is an unfamiliar one, appearing nowhere else in Torah. The classical commentators, starting with Rashi, all associate it with fish, dag, which are said to breed prolifically. This makes sense, we’re watching a family become a nation.

But there is a very evocative wordplay here, too.

Jacob stole his brother’s blessing — which included much grain, rov dagan. (Genesis 27:28). Discovering the deception Esau begs for a blessing but Isaac refuses, explaining that he has given all the wine and grain (dagan) away. (27:37)

Until now, blessing has been a zero-sum game. What is given to one sibling is no longer available to another. But now this dynamic is to be broken. Jacob, instead of playing favourites, does teshuvah for a wrong he perpetrated and also offers another way forward. For after blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob blesses each of his other sons individually. To be fair, the blessings are very much a mixed bag, but the Torah emphatically concludes that everyone got something: “and so he blessed them, each one according to his blessing, did he bless him” (49:28).

And that’s the point — there is enough blessing. As with parental love, the more children, the greater the actual quantity of love available. Jacob, on his deathbed, dispels the idea that siblings must necessarily fight for scarce resources. They have another choice — to band together and become a nation instead.


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