Why do we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe?
Table for Five: Vayechi
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God gave me here.” So he said, “Now bring them near to me, so that I may bless them.”
– Gen. 48:9
Bracha Goetz, Author of 42 Jewish children’s books
Joseph comes before his father, Jacob, with his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and his father, Jacob, seems to be uncertain who these two young men are. Why?
Jacob’s eyes are failing in his old age, but he is able to see two approximately 19-year-olds accompanying Joseph, dressed like Egyptian officials in royal clothing. They are not wearing the kind of clothes that the people in Jacob’s family wear. Joseph explains to his father that this is because Joseph and his family work closely with the Egyptian monarchy so they are dressed in Egyptian garb out of respect for the Egyptian royalty. Joseph then further explains that God gave him these sons with his wife, Dina’s exiled daughter, Asenath. Joseph shows his father the Ketubah which proves he is married to the daughter of Dinah. So Asenath was born from a Jewish mother and is therefore not only Jewish herself – but she is Jacob’s own granddaughter!
What is also wondrous is that even though his sons grew up in this Egyptian Diaspora, a corrupting and immoral atmosphere, they have been able to remain moral individuals living in awe of God’s ways. When Joseph explained this to his father, Jacob was immediately able to give his grandsons his full-hearted blessings. And to this day, we continue to give our offspring the blessing that they will be like Ephraim and Menashe – able to remain moral individuals, living in awe of God’s ways – withstanding the corrupting and immoral atmosphere in their midst.
Dini Coopersmith, Educational Director, Orot HaTorah, www.reconnectiontrips.com
Yaakov’s question “mi eileh” (who are these?) that pre-empted this verse is strange- does he not recognize his own grandchildren? And what does Yosef mean by his answer: “These are the sons God gave me here“? Where else would they have been given?
Netivot Shalom gives a chassidic answer regarding this interchange. There are 2 approaches to service of God. One is through fear, avoiding evil, and the other is through love, a passionate pursuit of good deeds and learning Torah. Yaakov, whose main trait is “Tiferet” (Torah, Truth, Balance) saw Yosef’s children and wondered why they seem to be serving God out of fear, a defensive Judaism, and not out of love, which is a higher form of relating to Hashem.
The words “mi eileh” in Hebrew have the same letters as “elohim” which is God’s name associated with fear and judgment, as opposed to Hashem which denotes Compassion and Love. Yaakov, who is the paradigm of balance, is asking: why don’t your sons relate to Hashem with love as well? Yosef answers: these are children who grew up here, in Egypt, “ervat haaretz” a den of iniquity and sexual immorality. In this environment, with evil rampant, and desires beckoning on every street corner, the way to serve God is only through awareness that God is watching, that there will eventually be Judgment, and that one needs to avoid evil at all costs. This approach is necessary in a permissive society such as this, where there are no boundaries.
Rabbi Jon Leener, Prospect Heights Shul
Joseph’s most endearing quality is his capacity to center his life around God, demonstrating complete God-consciousness. In this verse, he makes it clear that he understands his children to be a gift from God. For Joseph, everything is connected and given by God. In Parshat Vayigash, when revealing himself to his brothers, he says, “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”
In Parshat Vayeishev, when interpreting the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker, Joseph again evokes God by saying, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” If Abraham discovered God, it’s Joseph who manifests God, who is intoxicated with God. To be Joseph is to see God’s invisible hand in every aspect of his existence. This is why he has the distinguished title of “Yosef HaTzaddik” (Joseph the Righteous). In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and nearness of God…He feels embraced by God’s mercy as by a vast encircling space.” This is most inspiring because despite Joseph’s traumatic life, he still has the capacity to see everything as a blessing. This seems like the most relevant Torah of the current moment.
Nicholas Losorelli, Fourth Year Student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Approaching the end of his life, Israel has the trial of losing and finding Joseph, and the rest of his sons’ bad behavior weighing on his heart, while also meeting his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim, for the first time. Emotions and stakes are high, perhaps with the fear that his grandsons might be in danger when he dies, at the hands of the rest of his sons. Israel brings his own baggage regarding receiving a blessing from his father, one that led to so much strife between him and his older brother Esau. Taking what power and life he has left, he makes a different choice from the one that was made for him. He brings both Manasseh and Ephraim under the protection of his blessing and subverts the very practice that favored the older brother over the younger that led to the needless strife with his brother. The practice he subverted was one that his father Isaac and his mother Rebecca felt themselves trapped by. Rebecca out of deep love feared that her son Jacob would be left with nothing by this system, and protected him. Isaac felt stuck, and unable to alter the rules of blessing-giving, with Esau also falling victim along the way, creating a winnerless situation. With his final moments, Israel decided it was time to make a new choice, to stop the cycle of pain, and imagine a new reality. May we follow Israel’s example and may we all be so brave, bold, and loving.
Rabbi Sofia Zway, Base Rabbi, Base LA
The first time I witnessed my father-in-law bless his grandchildren, my nieces and nephew, I cried. I teared up not only because it was the first time in my life that I’d seen the ritual blessing of children, but because I knew that my future children would never receive a blessing from my father, z”l. Every Shabbat I spend with my in-laws, I cherish this moment.
The ritual of blessing children and grandchildren on Shabbat originates in this scene from Parashat Vayechi. This intergenerational encounter acts as a bridge between the past and the future. Joseph’s children, born in Egypt, represent the future of Israel. Jacob, as the last surviving patriarch, represents the past, the history, of this troubled biblical family. As the future meets the past, the past bestows blessings on the future. What is this blessing? “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Rabbi Laura Geller suggests that we bless our children in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh because they are the first two siblings in the Torah that never fight (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 299). Jacob’s grandsons represent the possibility of a future transformed by the lessons of the past. With his blessing, Jacob ensures that his descendants will continue to thrive, always cognizant of where they have come from and what it means to be Bnei Yisrael. May God make my children like Ephraim and Manasseh, bridges between past and future, and may they know the blessings of both their grandfathers.
Image: “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph” by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1656
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