In a fascinating analysis of 700 brothers who played Major League Baseball, psychologist Frank Sulloway found that younger brothers were 10.6 times more likely to try to steal a base and 3.2 times more likely to be successful at stealing than their older brothers.
This study aligns with previous research that indicates that the order siblings are born in influences their personality development. The oldest sibling is generally more intellectual, responsible, and conforming. In order to carve out space for themselves, younger siblings take more risks, are more creative, and are less conforming.
These findings are hotly debated. Some scholars contend that when more robust research methods are utilized, there are no significant personality differences between siblings based on their birth order.
Without taking a stand on which side of this debate is more convincing, it’s clear that the topic of birth order is central to the entire Sefer Bereishit and reaches its full development in Parshat Vayechi – starting with the deathly rivalry between Kayin and Hevel and continuing with the contentious relationships of Yishmael and Yitzchak, Esav and Yaakov, Leah and Rachel, and Yosef and his brothers.
While each relationship has its own dynamic that adds to the drama, the fact that the younger sibling takes the spotlight away from the older sibling is a theme that cuts through all of them. This is particularly accentuated in the story of Esav and Yaakov where the firstborn rights are sold and there is a rivalry surrounding who receives the blessing of the firstborn.
Yaakov, the youngest child, to the chagrin of his older children, favors his two youngest, Yosef and Binyamin. This contributes to the eventual sale of Yosef and sets the stage for the reunification of the family in Egypt.
While in retrospect, the unfolding of the plot was fortuitous, the tragedy and trauma of the years of separation took a toll on all parties, especially Yaakov. It is therefore surprising that upon blessing Yosef’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, Yaakov crosses his hands and provides the better blessing to the younger son, Ephraim.
Yosef, presumably with raw memories related to the real dangers inherent in favoring one child over another – especially a younger child over an older child – tries to intervene and tell his father that his right hand should be on the other child. Yaakov, however, responds that the placement of his right hand on Ephraim is intentional. He, after all, will become greater than Menashe and is thus deserving of a greater blessing.
Yet, we are still left wondering: Does Yaakov really not realize the dangers of his decision? Why does he double down on favoring one child over the other at the end of his life?
Perhaps Yaakov was communicating to his children, grandchildren, and to all subsequent generations that success in life should have nothing to do with birth order. While being born first may have advantages, it does not determine one’s future accomplishments. Being born second, third, or twelfth, may have some disadvantages, but the order does not have to solidify one’s place in the world.
The youngest child can succeed more than an oldest child, and an oldest child can succeed more than his younger siblings. Starting with Kayin and Hevel and culminating with Ephraim and Menashe, Sefer Bereishit subverts what was the accepted norm – that the oldest is automatically endowed with greatness and privilege.
And the stage is thus set for Sefer Shemot, where for the first time, a younger brother, Moshe, surpasses his older siblings and everyone graciously accepts his role based on merit.
As the scientific community tries to resolve the debate on whether birth order impacts personality, perhaps the message of Sefer Bereishit is that, either way, we shouldn’t let it impact our accomplishments. Success should be based on merit, not birth order.