by R' Yerachmiel Kram
Right That Is Left
"He crossed his hands because Menashe was the firstborn"
Yosef brings his two sons, Menashe and Efraim, to be blessed
by Yisroel, their grandfather. Before Yaakov begins to bless
them, Yosef places them in readiness: Menashe, the firstborn,
at Yaakov's right hand and Efraim, the younger, to Yaakov's
left. Now the three await Yaakov's benediction, but Yaakov is
not satisfied with the position of his grandsons. For reasons
of his own, he chooses to place his right hand upon Efraim's
head and his left, upon the firstborn.
"And Yisroel sent forth his right hand and placed it on the
head of Efraim, who was the younger, and his left upon the
head of Menashe. He crossed his hands for Menashe was the
firstborn." The word `sikeil' is translated by Onkelos
as `he did with cunning.' What extra intelligence was
required from Yaakov to cross his hands?
Rashi asks this selfsame question and explains that the Torah
does not wish to say that crossing his hands, per se,
required special intelligence. This verse, rather, comes to
negate the opposite. It was as if his hands crossed
themselves, automatically, without any obvious reason. Yaakov
knew, of course, that Menashe was the firstborn.
Nevertheless, he laid his right hand upon Efraim's head. It
was not through error, but on purpose, with wisdom and
Why did he cross his hands rather than switch the
We are still hard put to understand the language of the
verse. If what he did was with intent and purpose, rather
than by error, then he crossed his hands in spite of
Menashe's being the firstborn, not because of it. And
that is what the Torah should have written, "He crossed his
hands even though Menashe was the firstborn" and not
Actually, he could have gone about this differently. If he
saw fit to place his right hand on Efraim's head, he could
have done it simply and directly by asking the grandsons to
switch places in order for him to bless them. Why did he
choose to do it in such a strange manner?
Yaakov must have had to do it that way. He apparently had
legitimate reasons to place his left hand on Menashe's head
but did not wish to switch their positions so as not to
insult or pain him. Efraim, who warmed his study bench,
engrossed in constant study, precedes Menashe, the activist
and interpreter. But it is forbidden for this precedence to
come at the expense of Menashe's self-respect as a firstborn.
This is why Yaakov did not ask them to change positions.
Instead, he found a simpler way of blessing them in the
manner he wished without it insulting anyone. He switched the
position of his hands from above the bowed heads of his two
unwitting grandsons. Their glance was focused downwards as
they waited expectantly for the blessing. And so, Yaakov sent
his right hand towards Efraim, standing at his left, and his
left hand towards Menashe, who stood by his right. "And
Yisroel sent his right hand and laid it upon the head of
Efraim, who was the younger, and his left upon the head of
He could have done otherwise, had he so wished, and asked the
boys to exchange places. But he "exchanged [with wisdom] his
hands" in the way he blessed them, even though this way it
appeared strange and unnatural. It was a meditated act of
daas Torah, clear and lucid, a studied decision that
he bless them precisely in this manner rather than in any
Why, then, did he choose this particular manner?
"For Menashe was the firstborn." He could not wittingly
insult him and ask him to exchange places with his younger
brother. The only way to bless them as he wished would be to
change the position of his own hands and to bless Menashe
with his left hand and Efraim with his right without their
being aware of any preference or difference" (Ksav
"I know, my son, I know"
Yosef Hatzaddik did not fathom his father's intention. He
thought something was amiss. Yosef's thought process demanded
an understanding of the entire matter. He clearly saw his
father doing something unusual, something that aroused
questions, if not doubts.
The Netziv of Volozhin explains that Yosef thought that
Yaakov was indicating that he had not prepared the sons in
their proper positions -- the elder at Yaakov's right and the
junior at his left -- which is why he had crossed his hands.
Yosef, of course, knew that he had placed them correctly, in
the proper order, and sought to right what he thought was an
error on his father's part, so that he would bless them
Yaakov Ovinu had not erred. He knew exactly who was who and
purposely, deliberately did what he did. He explains to
Yosef, "I know, my son, I know." I know what you know, but I
also know what you don't know. I know who is the elder and
who is the younger and where they are positioned before me.
But I also know what will happen to their progeny in the
"I know that Menashe will produce Gid'on who will perform
miracles for Israel. But even greater than that will be
Efraim. From him will come forth Yehoshua bin Nun who will
bequeath the land to the nation, will teach Torah to Israel
and whose name will become famous throughout the world when
he shall arrest the sun in its orbit in Givon and the moon in
the valley of Ayalon.
"I know, my son, I know; he, too, will be a nation; he, too,
will become great."
"However, his younger brother will surpass him and his seed
shall become a multitude of nations" (48:19).
A great man sees things that are hidden from others.
Sometimes, the others are great, even exceedingly great, but
they are not as great as the unique one who is given to view
things that are hidden from others.
A Wise Man is Like One Who Sees Afar
We are being taught here a valuable lesson in emunas
chachomim, trust in our Sages. We are taught to
acknowledge the power of the leaders of our generation to see
what is hidden from the sight and understanding of others. Be
this prophetic vision, like the prophecy of Yaakov Ovinu, or
the foresight vision of daas Torah, the Torah leaders
of each generation.
The godol hador is likened to that lookout who is
appointed by the people of his city to warn against any
approaching danger. When he raises the alarm of any impending
threat, he is not considered a doomsayer and is not to be
scolded for his pessimism. It is precisely his responsibility
to stand on guard, in a high lookout tower, so that he might
detect what others below cannot see. The ordinary townspeople
are free to go about their usual ways while he is charged to
be the sentinel. They are below, he is high above. They are
serene; he is on guard, taut and alert to any possible
Those on the ground level must bend their ear to the scout
who stands above and warns; he must prepare himself
accordingly. The common person does not presume to be doing a
favor to the lookout when he heeds his warning. He knows that
he is protecting himself. He obeys because he realizes that
the watchman knows what he doesn't know, is aware of things
he is not aware of, and it is purely in his own interest to
heed the warning of the watchman. By virtue of his elevated
position, the lookout knows more than he; he is informed. It
is only natural and wise to listen to him. It is not a matter
of deference to his stature but a very practical relation of
cause-and-effect; the citizen must obey because the guard is
at an advantage; he knows what the man does not know and is
warning him for his own good.
One Hundred Myopic People Will Not See What One
Sharpshooter Can Discern
The simple person may ask: but what if one thousand and one
people think differently from that single seer? Can they all
be in error and only that one person be seeing the truth?
He may ask further: Amidst those thousand there are also
Torah scholars who delve into the Torah day and night. Can
that one great man truly see better and further than all the
rest, scholars included?
In order to clarify this point, let us use the parable which
HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky zt'l employed:
One hundred people are standing about. One of them can see a
distance of ten kilometers. Another can see as far as fifteen
kilometers away and so on. The one with the keenest vision is
able to discern objects at a distance of twenty-five
kilometers. To be sure, if we were to place then all abreast
in one line and ask them to identify an object ten kilometers
away, they would all see it. If we moved it back five
kilometers, not everyone would see it. The further we removed
the object, the fewer people would be able to discern it.
At the distance of twenty-five kilometers, only one person
will see it. He alone is able to see what all the other
hundred and one people fail to see. Even if they were all to
erect a human pyramid, one on the back of the other, none of
them would be able to view that distant object, which is
beyond their field of vision. Their combined efforts will be
in vain for at that distance, only the person with the very
acute vision will be able to see the object that eludes all
This applies equally to the lookout guard who stands up high
in his tower and can see further than all the others. Even if
all the townspeople are to gather below and strain their
vision, they will be unable to see what he can see from his
high vantage point.
He is high and they are below.
He will also be able to see, understand and integrate what he
sees with his greater knowledge, that which even a thousand
lesser/lower people will be unable to see and understand.
The sage intuits; he predicts what will develop. He does not
actually see the future, but he can envision what will come
to be. He sees the newborn, the product of the birthing
process. The birthing process involves difficult pangs but
the end result is happy and rewardingly pleasant.
The wise seer may demand steps that are not always acceptable
and logical; he may outline steps that seem to be
counterproductive. It is similar to the process of birth
which is accompanied with painful pangs. But the wise man is
able to project into the future and see the moment after
birth, that moment when everyone is all smiles and joyous. To
see this eventual light when everything is still all darkness
requires a great measure of wisdom.
The Obligation to Attempt to Understand the Wisdom of the
The power of the sage is similar to that of the sentinel. It
is very obvious. The wise man is capable of understanding a
difficult passage in the Rashba which other scholars have
labored in vain to fathom. If one hundred laymen were to sit
down before that passage and try to learn it, would they
succeed in revealing its intricacies and deeper meanings?
The mind of a sage can delve deeply to profound depths and
penetrate the heart of difficult subjects which a hundred
simple people would be at a loss to understand.
He is standing at a vantage point.
The Rambam explains this in his "Letter to Yemen:"
"Know that just like the blind man can be saved [from mishap]
by following behind the seeing man for he realizes full well
that he cannot see himself, and just as the sick person with
no knowledge of medicine knows enough to follow the
directives of the physician for he is ignorant of what
medicines can harm and what can save and benefit him and will
do whatever the doctor bids him, so must the masses place
their trust in and rely upon the prophets with the true
vision. Suffice them to know that the wise men say that this
is true while that is false.
"After the prophets, come the sages who delve [and pursue
Torah knowledge] by day and by night and who know what is
true and what is vanity."
The Mashgiach, HaRav Eliyahu Dessler zt'l, quotes the
above passage in his work, Michtav MeEliahu and adds
that in addition to availing oneself of the clear sight of
Torah scholars, one may also attempt to understand their
thought processes whereby we can also align our own thoughts
accordingly. "Therefore," he writes, "the sages of our
generation whose goal in life it is, as devoted and loyal
disciples, to follow in the ways of Chazal, are privy to this
measure of straightforward thinking in such great measure
that their opinion, even in matters that have no explicit
source and even their advice on mundane matters, is clear,
lucid and true, just as if they had asked a man of G-d, a
prophet. And this we clearly see, thank G-d, even in this
On Right that it is Left . . .
The Torah expresses the obligation to obey the words of our
Sages in the following manner, "You shall not veer from the
thing that they tell you, right or left" (Devorim
17:11). Rashi explains: "Even if he tells you that right is
left and left is right. All the more so if he tells you that
right is right and left is left." Some say that Rashi is
quoting here the Sifrei. Why did the Sages utilize the
example of right and left and not examples of other
opposites, like day and night or north and south?
There is an apparently deep significance in the choice of
example. North and south, like day and night, are absolute
concepts which have no relation to the person speaking about
them. Not so right and left, which are not absolute but
relative to the speaker. Reuven and Shimon can converse
between them and mention `right' and `left' and not even be
referring to the identical `right' and `left,' for Reuven's
right is Shimon's left and vice versa.
When the Torah commands us to obey a Torah sage, it does not
order us to heed him in the event that he claims that north
is south, for this cannot hold true. A Torah sage cannot
declare night to be day. And if, nonetheless, a leader issues
a directive that appears strange and questionable to the
listener, it must be that the latter is not standing in the
same position and in the same way that the sage is standing.
He does not possess that sage's intellectual tools, his clear
vision, his objectivity and his broad scope.
If he thinks that the sage is telling him that left is right,
then the fault must lie with the listener. According to his
limited information, it appears to him that the right is the
left. Were he to stand at the sage's vantage point, he would
see that it is, after all, right.
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