I know, some of my readers would smile skeptically at this title: the statement that “Christmas is a pagan holiday” is so popular nowadays that many people prefer to have nothing to do with Christmas – and definitely, would not expect an article about Christmas on Israel Biblical studies blog. Yes, there is nothing to argue about, Christmas is a festival established by men – but so is the Torah reading cycle, isn’t it? And yet, I happen to believe that the weekly Torah portions are divinely ordained, and that God speaks to His people, and to each one of us personally, through these portions of Scripture—Parashot Shavua. In the same way, through this humanly established holiday of Christmas, those who have ears can hear God’s message – and we will hear very soon what an amazing combination of the Torah portion and Christmas we get this year! Before we do that however, I want to share some other interesting details from this Torah portion – the final one in the book of Genesis.
GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD
Of course, there are many things we can say about Vayechi (as about every Torah portion). However, I want to point out something that was of particular encouragement for me – and I hope it will be an encouragement for you also. Toward the very end of the book – like a seal on the story of Joseph, on the book of Genesis, and also on this about-to-end year of our lives – Joseph says to his brothers: “God meant it for good”. Aren’t these amazing words? Both in the Bible and in our lives, God always carries out His plan through people: not only through people’s strengths and faith, but also through their weaknesses and mistakes. It’s a wonderful feeling: when one can look back at the year that is about to end, see all the mistakes and misdeeds that each one of us has done or experienced this year, and trust that the Lord can work out His good, even from our mistakes: God meant it for good.
LIKE EPHRAIM AND MENASHE
There is a very interesting detail in this Portion that explains one of the Jewish customs. During every Shabbat celebration on Friday evening, Jewish fathers bless their children with the priestly blessing. The introductory line of this blessing is different for boys and girls.
For girls, the introductory line is:
May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
For boys, the introductory line is:
May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe!
Why do Jewish fathers bless their sons by the names of Joseph’s sons? Why are the sons of Joseph chosen for this blessing rather than the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
We know that two sons were born to Joseph in Egypt. First of all, let us try to understand the original Hebrew meaning of their names. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh. The name Menashe (Manasseh) is derived from the Hebrew root נָשָׁה – “to cause to forget”. Joseph called his son Menashe because he wanted to forget all the suffering and affliction he went through. The name of the second he called Ephraim. The name Ephraim is derived from the root פָּרָה – “to make fruitful”. Evidently Joseph was able to forget his suffering and move on—to become fruitful and productive in the foreign land.
Before his death, Jacob chooses his two grandchildren for the blessings across the ages: he blessed them that day, saying, “By you Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ Why? Ephraim and Menashe are the first brothers in the Torah whose relationship is not marked by jealousy and rivalry – a powerful testimony to the peace in Joseph’s heart and Joseph’s house. The Jewish Rabbis see a powerful message in this blessing. This is God’s message to our sons, and indeed to all of us: God wants us to have peace in our hearts and peace in our homes, and to always be attuned to the God of Israel, no matter how powerful and tempting our “Egyptian” surroundings might be.
CHRISTMAS TORAH PORTION
And now, finally, I am going to show you why I called this Parashah, “Christmas Torah portion”. In Genesis 49, when Jacob is about to die, he pronounces blessings (or rather prophetic words – because not all his words were a blessing) upon each of his sons. When he blessed Judah he proclaimed: his “brothers shall praise” him. We have spoken a lot about Judah on these pages—about the fact that, by the end of the book, the story of “Joseph and his brothers” becomes the story of “Judah and his brothers”. We also spoke about the amazing authority that we see in Judah throughout this whole story (starting from chapter 37 where even in the midst of the terrible crime of the brothers, the voice of Judah becomes decisive) – and we are therefore not surprised to hear Jacob describe Judah’s authority as given directly by God. But then he declared that Judah would be a lion, powerful and strong to destroy his enemies, and also a cub – whom we would imagine as weak and helpless. How are we to reconcile these two images?
I would like to remind you of an amazing scene from chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation, where John, who is weeping over the sealed book, is told: “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” Hearing this, he turns around, expecting to see the victorious Lion, and suddenly, instead of a Lion, he sees a Lamb as though it had been slain. Can you imagine? You’re expecting to see a Lion: strong, powerful, and victorious, but instead of a Lion you see a Lamb: meek, innocent, helpless, and as though it had been slain at that. This is such an incredible substitution that only He Himself can confirm that this Lamb was indeed sent by Him—and that it is the Lion Himself. The words of Jacob here are very similar—their prophetic meaning is the same: Judah would be both the cub and the lion.
Commenting on these words, Rashi writes: “He prophesized about David, who was at first like a cub, and in the end a lion, when they made him king over them”. However, there is another hint in the prophecy of Jacob that makes it possible that these words reach beyond King David:
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people”.
What is Shiloh? Or who is Shiloh? In the entire Tanach (Old Testament) this word occurs only once – here, in this verse, and the meaning of the word, as well as its origin, is not clear. You probably know the Christian interpretation, but let me share with you what the Jewish commentators wrote about Shiloh.
Rashi: “[This refers to] the King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs (שֶׁלוֹ) , and so did Onkelos render it: [until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs]. According to the Midrash Aggadah, [“Shiloh” is a combination of] שַׁי לוֹ, a gift to him, as it is said: “they will bring a gift to him who is to be feared” (Ps. 76:12).
Can you see now why I called this Parashah, “Christmas Torah portion”? Jacob is prophesying of the coming of Messiah who will be both a cub and a lion – and to whom “shall be the obedience of the people”. Isn’t it the message of Christmas?
Merry Christmas to all my precious readers!
May your hearts and your homes be filled with His Joy and His Light!
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/ . Also, I wanted to let you know that I am preparing the book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah, the book will be published and available in January -2019 .
 At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course exists both in Spanish and Portuguese.