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01/23/2020 05:55:04 PM

Jan23

Rabbi Weiss

“A Blessing on Your Heads”

Vayechi
Friday, January 10, 2020

For most of their lives, my sons Michael and Jacob have been offered the same blessing every Friday night at dinner: Y’simcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chim’nasheh—May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh. Only since Olivia and Claudia came into our lives and our Shabbat table ten years ago have we needed the blessing for girls: Y’simech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel v’Leah—May God make you like Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel and Leah.

The blessing for girls seems to make more sense. Of course we would want our daughters to be like the matriarchs of our people. But why Ephraim and Menasseh—the two sons of Joseph born while he was in Egypt? Why not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Well, off the top of my head, our patriarchs were not always paragons of virtue. Abraham and Isaac both tried to pass their wives off as their sisters to save their own skin in foreign lands. Jacob, well, he tricked his brother out of his birthright, stole his father’s deathbed blessing, and favoured his youngest sons over the older ones, causing endless family problems.

As for Ephraim and Menasseh, except that their parents are Joseph and his Egyptian wife Asnat, we know very little about them. The simplest explanation for blessing our sons as we do is that in this week’s portion, Vayechi, the last in the book of Bereshit, we’re told to by Jacob. At the end of his life, Jacob calls for Joseph to come to him, and makes him swear that when he dies, Joseph will bury him in Canaan, in the Cave of Machpelah, where most of his family is buried.

Joseph brings his sons to see their grandfather. This is how Torah tells it:

Noticing Joseph’s sons, Israel asked, “Who are these?” And Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” “Bring them up to me,” he said, “that I may bless them.” Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Joseph then removed them from his knees, and bowed low with his face to the ground. Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand—to Israel’s left—and Manasseh with his left hand—to Israel’s right—and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born. (Gen. 48:8-14).

Notice the parallel to Jacob’s father Isaac. Both were unable to see clearly as death approached. But whereas Jacob and his mother took advantage of Isaac’s blindness to steal his blessing from Esau, Joseph is careful to place his sons in the right order: the older, Menasseh, on the right (the prominent position), and Ephraim, the younger, on the left.

Jacob, ever the heel-sneak, crosses his hands and switches the birth order of his grandsons. Joseph protests:

“Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.” But his father objected, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too shall become a people, and he too shall be great. Yet his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying

“By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. (Gen. 48:18-20)

So that is the simple reason we bless our boys by asking they be like Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob says this is how we’ll do it for all time. Not only that, we put the younger before the older because in later days, Ephraim is a much more important tribe than Manasseh. Plus, the entire Hebrew Bible is about overturning primogeniture: Isaac gets the covenant over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Joseph gets the double portion over his older brothers; Rachel is more beloved than Leah; Moses is third-born; and David is the seventh. So putting Ephraim before Manasseh is par for the biblical course.

The commentary Etz Hayim offers two possible explanations for why we bless through Ephraim and Manasseh rather than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The first is that “they were the first children who had to maintain their identity in a foreign land.” Indeed, Joseph’s story is the first story of Jewish success in the Diaspora. His accomplishments outside of the Promised Land are echoed in those of Daniel and Esther, and all Jews throughout history who have “made it” in the non-Jewish world (including us!). Ephraim and Manasseh are a reminder of that success, as well as the challenge of keeping our Jewish identities strong in the Diaspora.

The second explanation is the one we often shared with our boy as they were growing up: “They were the first brothers in the Bible to get along.” Genesis is an endless saga of sibling rivalries: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. Now that families have learned to get along, as symbolized by Ephraim and Manasseh, we can move on to becoming a nation.

The challenges that await Jacob and his people will be difficult to overcome. They still are. By learning to strengthen our families we can strengthen our ties as a Jewish people. Only then can we surmount the many trials we continue to face as Am Yisrael—the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel and Leah—but also Ephraim and Manasseh. May we strive to emulate the best of all they had to share.

Tue, February 18 2020 23 Sh'vat 5780