Vayechi 5780 – Why Ephraim and Manasseh?

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Many Jewish parents embrace a custom of blessing their children every Friday evening. This custom is a nice way of bringing gratitude and spirituality to your family. We have seen our son-in-law bless each of his children, our grandchildren, during Shabbat dinner and it a heartwarming moment. The words of the blessings are taken from the priestly blessing.  The introduction is different depending on whether the child is a boy or girl. For boys, the introductory line is: May you be like Ephraim and Manasseh. For girls, the introductory line is: May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Following the introduction, the priestly blessing is recited. It seems strange that the blessing for boys singles out Ephraim and Manasseh instead of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which begs the question:  Who were these two guys that they should become memorialized in this weekly celebratory prayer?

In this week’s parshah, Vayechi, we encounter a touching deathbed scene fraught with decades of underlying tension and competition. During the days immediately preceding Jacob’s death, he utters these words as he blesses his children and grandchildren who had gathered around him to share his final moments. Such final blessing scenes are common affairs in the ancient testamentary literature, but this particular one displays a few elements that stray from the standard, inspiring interpreters to reflect on the meaning of such deviations from the norm.

The most important deviation comes in the order in which Jacob blesses his progeny. Jacob first blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, his grandsons, elevating them to the status of his sons as predecessors of the tribes of Israel.  He then mentions Joseph. Only after this did Jacob continue to bless the rest of his sons, all of whom are older than Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Skipping over his elder offspring, it seems that Jacob intentionally raised up Joseph and his sons to a privileged position that exceeds their due place in the clan. Moreover, we find a further extension of this pattern of inverting the law of the first born when Jacob deliberately places his right hand, his” strong” or” chosen” hand on the head of the younger Ephraim, advancing his position before that of his older brother Manasseh.

When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand upon Ephraim’s head, he moved it to Manasseh’s. He said,” No, father. This is the firstborn, place your right hand upon his head.” Jacob refused.” I know it, my son. He, too, will become a tribe. He, too, will be great but his younger brother will be greater than he and his seed will complete the nations.” He blessed them on that day saying,” May God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh.” He put Ephraim before Manasseh.

The sibling relationships in the book of Exodus had always been associated with strife and jealousy. It is not difficult to understand the care Joseph took to ensure his father, Jacob, would bless the firstborn first. Three times previously Jacob had put the younger before the older, and each time it resulted in tragedy. Jacob, the younger brother, had sought to supplant his older brother Esau. Jacob favored the younger sister Rachel over Leah. And Jacob favored the youngest of his children, Joseph and Benjamin, over the elder Ruben, Shimon and Levi. The consequences were catastrophic: estrangement from Esau, tension between the two sisters, and hostility among his sons. Joseph himself bore the scars: thrown into a well by his brothers, who initially planned to kill him and eventually sold him into Egypt as a slave. Had not his father learned? Did Jacob know what he was doing? Did he not realize that he was risking extending the family feuds into the next generation? Besides which, what possible reason could he have for favoring the younger of his grandchildren over the older? He had not seen them before. He knew nothing about them except for their names. None of the factors that led to the earlier episodes were operative here.

Ephraim and Manasseh were Joseph’s two sons who were born after he arrived in Egypt.” The past was a bitter memory Joseph sought to remove from his mind. So, Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh, saying,” is because God has made me forget all my trouble in all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim saying,” it is because God has made be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim over Manasseh had nothing to do with their ages and everything to do with their names.  Jacob sought to signal to all future generations that there would be a constant tension between the desire to forget and the prompting of memory- that the ultimate home is somewhere else. Manasseh represents forgetting but Ephraim is the child who remembers the past but also plans for the future he will be part of.

The question remains:  Why were Ephraim and Manasseh, Jacob’s grandchildren, elevated above Jacob’s sons? There are several interpretations of this episode. One interpretation of this comes from Rabbi Zvi Elimelech.  It is an important foundation of the ethical traditions of Judaism not to exalt oneself over others and not to be jealous of another person. When Jacob saw that even though he chose the younger Ephraim to serve as the firstborn and despite this, Ephraim did not exalt himself over Manasseh and further, Manasseh was not jealous of Ephraim, Jacob said to himself:” If only all the children of Israel could be like this, free of arrogance and envy!”… Therefore, Israel is blessed specifically through them, so that like them there should not be jealousy and competition ruling them.

Aside from its evident moral message, this explanation speaks volumes about the hope of a grandfather for future generations of his family. If Jacob’s sons are anything, after all, they are jealous and competitive in the extreme. Selling a brother into slavery is about as good an indicator of the jealous and competitive tendencies as one could imagine. But here, on his deathbed, Jacob expresses his fervent hope that the competition that ruined his sons’ generation can be avoided in the next, and further, in all future generations of the Jewish people. In blessing our children with these words each Shabbat, then, we echo the hope that familial harmony will win the day, despite petty jealousies and competition that inevitably inhabit every family.

Contrast this with another interpretation by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Ginsburg: why, specifically,” like Ephraim and like Manasseh?” Jacob saw that the diaspora was growing closer to his children, and he knew that in a foreign place, Jews are put into the danger of assimilation and acculturation. Therefore, he blessed them that they should be like Ephraim and Manasseh, the first Jews who were born, grew up, and were educated in the diaspora, in Egypt, but despite this remained faithful to Judaism and the future Israel.

Rabbi Elimelech’s goal is to ensure that our children grow up better than their parents – less competitive and jealous, higher in moral stature. In essence, his hope is that children can benefit from seeing and avoiding the mistakes of their parents. However, Rabbi Ginsburg offers an alternative explanation, explaining that the blessing instead communicates to us that despite the many challenges of a diaspora which tends to draw children away from their Jewish roots, we hope and work hard to ensure they will grow up is committed Jews.

The threat that we face in North America is that we must confront the real possibility that our children and or grandchildren will not be Jewish. If we want there to be Jews in North America hundred years now, we need to do everything we can to make Judaism joyful and relevant.

We have read recently about many acts of anti-Semitism.  We worry about the growth of anti-Semitism in America. However, in an article in 2018 in the New York Times by Gal Beckerman entitled American Jews Face a Choice:  Create Meaning or Fade Away, it is pointed out that anti-Semitism is not what defines the experience of Jews in America today; assimilation is.   The professional worriers in the Jewish Community say it is love, not hate that poses the bigger existential challenge.  According to the article 72% of non-Orthodox Jews marry outside the tribe.  The infrastructure of Judaism, from the synagogue to the long-established liberal denominations, is being steadily abandoned.  Almost a third of millennial Jews are so unidentified with Judaism that they say they have no religion at all.

Tal Keinan has written: “Create meaning or accept extinction.”

A majority of American Jews in the 2013 Pew Survey rated humor and intellectual curiosity much higher than community and religious practice as indicators of Jewishness. There needs to be a push for inclusivity to offset the impact of the increasingly high rate of Jews marrying non-Jews. The aim must be to shock American Judaism out of complacency.

As pointed out, two rabbis have divergent meanings to the same words found in this parshah. This Shabbat, as we bless our children, let us hold these two different understandings of this blessing in mind: first, our hope that our children grow up as Ephraim and Manasseh did, in a harmonious family; where jealousy and hatred, competition and anger are banished; where they do not learn from less than optimal behaviors so that the next generation may grow up to be better than the last. And at the same time, let us hope that they will grow up to be like Ephraim and Manasseh in a second way: so that Judaism we instill in them takes root despite the challenges of the life in the diaspora. We are blessing them to never get lost as Jews.