By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel

Agudath Israel of the Five Towns

The episode of Efraim superseding Menashe highlights an intriguing phenomenon in Sefer Bereishis. What we would predict as the normal development of children is totally nonexistent here. Let us consider the following:

In a normal population, the firstborns of any given family have greater chances of demonstrable success in life. This is borne out by testing. It is for good reason: The firstborn spends the initial months or years of his or her life as the exclusive emphasis and focus of his or her parents. They throw all of their efforts into that child. If the child has average or above average capabilities, he will have experienced tremendous amounts of learning opportunities from both father and mother. Psychological studies have proven this to be true.

Kate Lorenz, an editor at, writes the following:

“In his book The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, Dalton Conley demonstrates that 75% of the income inequality between individuals in the United States occurs between siblings in the same families . . . Research shows that firstborns [and only children] lead the pack in terms of educational attainment, occupational prestige, income, and net worth. Conversely, middle children in large families tend to fare the worst.

“‘A child’s position in the family impacts his personality, his behavior, his learning, and ultimately his earning power,’ states Michael Grose, author of Why First-Borns Rule the World and Last-Borns Want to Change It. ‘Most people have an intuitive knowledge that birth order somehow has an impact on development, but they underestimate how far-reaching and just how significant that impact really is.’”

So say the researchers in the field. Yet, if we take a look at the events in Sefer Bereishis, we immediately see that this expectation does not pan out.

Let’s cite a few examples: Adam had three sons–Kayin, Hevel, and Sheis. The successful son was Sheis. Noach had three sons–Shem, Cham, and Yefes. Although Shem is mentioned first, Yefes was actually the oldest, while Cham was the youngest and Shem was the middle child. However, Shem was the ancestor of Klal Yisrael and the preeminent son.

Terach had three sons–the oldest being Haran, the second, Avraham, and the third, Nachor. The success of the middle child in this family speaks for itself. Avraham had two children–the older Yishmael, and the younger Yitzchak. Who was preeminent and who was ejected? Yitzchak had two children–Eisav and Yaakov. Who took the birthright? Yaakov had 12 children–the oldest being Reuven. Reuven lost all of his advantages: The kingship went to Yehudah, the kehunah went to Levi, and the rights of the firstborn went to Yosef.

Levi had three sons–Gershon, Kehas, and Merari. The preeminent son was Kehas. Yehudah had Er, Onan, Sheilah, Peretz, and Zerach. Peretz was the preeminent son. Yosef had two sons–Menashe and Efraim. As we know, Efraim was placed before Menashe.

Throughout Sefer Bereishis, we see that the firstborn, even if he was male–which in ancient times surely bestowed very significant advantages–fell far short of expectations. The shortfall is extreme, as borne out by the above examples. What statistics say should be the predominant majority turns out not even to be a minority: It is a zero!

This is true even as we move into Sefer Sh’mos, where we find that Amram had three children–Miriam, Aharon, and Moshe. As great as they all were, we know that Moshe was the preeminent child. There was only one firstborn up to this point who actually fulfilled our expectations of the position. Kehas had four sons–Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uziel. Amram was the oldest of the four and the primary child.

What can we learn from this resounding failure of statistics? That when it comes to spiritual achievement, there are no built-in advantages or disadvantages. Each person’s efforts will decide what he or she will attain. There is complete free choice, and the only rule is lefum tza’ara agra, “The reward is according to the effort” (Avos 5:23). Every individual can reach the apex of spiritual achievement, based on his or her own efforts. The facts prove it. v

Rabbi Frankel can be reached at At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis, Sh’mos, and Vayikra.


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