Vayechi: Holy Brothers

Dwelling in Peace

Every Friday night, traditional Jewish parents bless their children at the beginning of the Shabbat meal. The Biblical Matriarchs are evoked in the blessing for daughters: “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” The blessing for sons is “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.”

Why aren’t sons likened to the Biblical Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Who are Ephraim and Menashe and why do we want our sons to be like them?

Ephraim and Menashe are the sons of Joseph, born in Egypt, and two of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Menashe is the older brother, but when Jacob on his deathbed blesses his grandsons, he switches his hands so that Ephraim will receive the firstborn blessing (Gen. 48:14). This mysterious switching of the blessing evokes other Biblical brothers whose birth order is subverted (see: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.) Will Joseph’s sons also feud bitterly after the younger is favored over the elder?

The Torah does not record any reaction from Menashe at being passed over for the firstborn blessing. Righteous Menashe accepts the demotion not with angry complaint but quiet serenity. Menashe doesn’t sulk and Ephraim doesn’t gloat. They are the first Jewish brothers not to fight, and they are Jacob’s only grandsons to become Tribes of Israel.

We bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe because we want them to be men of peace who prioritize family harmony over ego. In the immortal words of King David, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.” (Ps.133:1). May we all be blessed to live in peace and harmony, motivated not by envy but by love!

Dedicated by Lisa Gilman in memory of her beloved aunts, Marilyn Freeman, Eleanor Freedman, Connie Gitelman, Ruth Zuroff, Florence Feldman and Fairy Gordon.

Image: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Jan Victors, 1650

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