Parashat Vayechi – The Blessing of Remembering

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

I am in the midst of a project at home. I’m making a written record of my most treasured belongings – few in number though they may be – and deciding on what is to become of them when I die. For those of you know me, the details I’ve included in these files would not surprise you.

Like many in her generation, my daughter isn’t especially sentimental, and I want to be sure that these items stay in the family, and that is very clear in what I’ve written. All of my grandparents were immigrants, and I have very few items from them. How I wish I had more! So for these particular items, I’m being very exact as to who should receive them.

My grandfather’s tefillin is one of these items. They sat in a drawer for decades. They are extremely well worn, having been used by my maternal grandfather for decades. He was born in 1880, and they were given to him around the time of his bar mitzvah in or near Kiev in the Ukraine around 1893. He used them until his death, in 1945, 6 years before I was born.

But then they sat – from 1945 – until just a few years ago, when I started going to morning minyan on a regular basis. I’ve used Max’s tefillin since. Can you just imagine what his reaction would have been if he had been told that those tefillin would be worn by a grandson he would never know, in 2023?!

Max wore those tefillin here in the U.S. as he had done in the old country. But when he died, his sons put them away – a relic of a time gone by. A relic of the Ukraine and the shtetl. His sons were quite assimilated. Time to put the remnants of the past in a drawer. And here I am, feeling more strongly than I ever have, that it’s important to wear them again.

In today’s parashah, we read a rather extensive description of Jacob’s conferring blessings on Joseph’s children. Apparently in those times, the order in which a child was blessed by a dying relative had great significance. Jacob was near death and was unable to see well. Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob for their final blessing. Jacob put his right hand on Ephraim’s head, signaling that he would receive the first blessing, although Ephraim was the younger of the sons. Menasheh, the older son, would receive the second blessing, though by birth order, he traditionally would have received the first.

Joseph tried to correct Jacob, but Jacob was quite insistent, stating that Ephraim, the younger of the sons, would become a greater nation than would his older brother. Perhaps unwisely, Jacob once again couldn’t resist playing favorites.

We note that three times in Jacob’s life, the younger had been chosen over the older, each time with unfortunate results – Jacob himself over Esau, Jacob’s choice of wife – Rachel over Leah, and his son, Joseph, over his older brothers. Each time, tension, estrangement, and even hostility resulted. Joseph himself was the victim on one occasion. Hadn’t Jacob learned?

Well, as you might guess, the text doesn’t explain to us why Jacob insisted on granting the most important blessing on the younger child, contrary to the custom of the day. We do know, however, that Jacob knew the names of the sons, and which was which.

Without going into all the Hebrew etymology, the meaning of the name Menasheh implies that G-d made Joseph forget his troubled past and his estrangement and separation from his family. Assimilate. Just be happy in the moment. The name Ephraim suggests that he would be successful and fruitful, but it would be in the “land of his affliction.”

The names of the sons perhaps reflected Joseph’s mindset at the time of their birth. At first, he was delighted with all the trappings of success. Power, fame, nice clothes. So he named his son Menasheh. But those people were not his people. And his people, undistinguished though they may have been, were family.

And I suppose that in those times, a person’s given name reflected the experiences of their parent and supposedly helped shape the type of person one was to become. But with all of Joseph’s success, Egypt was still Egypt. And with none of his people nearby, and with none of his people’s customs followed, it was still a land of affliction. And so his second son was named Ephraim.

I’ve read a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in which he says that, in reference to our status as immigrants to America, the second generation seeks to remember what the first generation sought to forget. Certainly that is the case with respect to my grandfather’s tefillin. And maybe that was to be the case with respect to Joseph’s sons.

Perhaps by his choice of who was to receive the most important and impactful blessing, Jacob was signaling that his people’s exile would be long. That there would be constant tension between trying to forget – assimilating – and realizing the importance of remembering: remembering his people’s extended family, customs, and beliefs. Remembering that although we live in “exile,” we have another home elsewhere.

The child of forgetting (Menasheh) may have many blessings in his life, and would hopefully have a happy and meaningful life. But greater are the blessings of a child (Ephraim) who remembers the past, and that he is still a part of it. And so it is that Max’s tefillin are being put to use again, with much reverence. Wouldn’t he be proud!