Parashat Vayechi / פרשת ויחי
Torah Portion: Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

Among the gems to be found in the final chapters of the Book of Genesis, Jacob’s blessing over Joseph’s sons has proven to be one of the brightest and most durable throughout Jewish history. Part of the blessing – May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:20) — continues to be heard in Jewish homes to this day as parents bless their children on Shabbat.

When I lead Shabbat dinner rituals for gatherings of Jewish families in synagogues and retreats, invariably someone will ask me: “Who are Ephraim and Manasseh and why do we want our sons to be like them?” These are excellent questions that deserve our attention. (The contemporary parallel blessing for girls asks God to make our daughters like our matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. No one ever asks why we use this blessing. Who wouldn’t want their daughters to walk in the footsteps of these familiar and formidable women?)

First, here’s what we know about Ephraim and Manasseh: they are Joseph’s second and first sons, respectively, whom Jacob adopts as his own children shortly before his death[1]; their mother, a woman named Asenath, is the daughter of an Egyptian priest given to Joseph by Pharaoh (41:65); Joseph lives to see great-grandchildren from them (50:23); and they replace Joseph as a tribal leader among the tribes of Israel.[2] Beyond these simple facts, the Torah itself provides no more information.

On the surface, the information above tells us little about why Ephraim and Manasseh rise to such prominence in the development of Israelite religion and, later, Judaism. A little probing and a lot of imagination, however, reveal a number of reasons why we might chose to bless generations of Israelite/Jewish boys in their name. I offer the following explanations, but this list is probably not exhaustive:

1) Shalom Bayit – Family Peace

Ephraim and Mannaseh are the first pair of brothers to live together without fighting. Recall that Ishmael “mocked” (metzahek), Isaac (21:9), according to one understanding of the Hebrew metzahek, and that Jacob and Esau engaged in a struggle throughout their upbringing for their father’s attention and blessing. Thus, Ephraim and Mannaseh symbolize brotherhood and unity among the Children of Israel.

2) Yahadut – Jewish Identity

As Joseph rises from slavery and imprisonment in Egypt to a place of prominence in Pharaoh’s court, he sheds and/or loses any outward signs of connection to his ancestry. Though Joseph invokes the name of God (e.g. 45:5, 24; 50:19, 24), his brothers see him plainly as Egyptian royalty, having no reason to believe he is one of their own. Manasseh and Ephraim, however, seem to reclaim their identity as Israelites once their extended family joins them in Goshen. In fact, one midrash, in explaining why Ephraim receives the blessing of the firstborn instead of his older brother, Manasseh, by imagining Ephraim studying Torah with his grandfather, Jacob. Not only does Ephraim reclaim his identity as an Israelite, he actively learns about his people’s history, values and rituals. If Joseph represents a break from tradition, his sons, then, represent an eager return to and a proud association with that tradition.

3) Zechut – The Merit of Joseph

While Joseph may not have been a model Israelite, we as his descendents remember him for his righteousness and his achievements as Pharaoh’s. One commentator even sees the blessing of Manasseh and Ephraim as a kind of reward that Jacob bestows upon Joseph. Joseph merits becoming the progenitor of two tribes, rather than one. Therefore, when we think of Manasseh and Ephraim, we should recall the greatness of their father.[3]

4) Zachor — Remembering Joseph Absence

The same commentator who sees Manasseh and Ephraim as symbols of Joseph’s greatness also sees in them a reminder that Joseph becomes disconnected from his family and his tradition. We shouldn’t forget that sometimes Jewish history presents tremendous challenges to our survival as a people, challenges which we have overcome. Had it not been for Joseph’s children, Joseph’s lineage may have been forever severed from Israel.

5) Dor l’Dor / Hiddur P’nai Zaken – From Generation to Generation / Giving Pleasure to Elders

One of the greatest pleasures for a parent is to see his or her family prosper. Imagine the joy Jacob must have felt not only upon reuniting with his son, whom he thought he’d lost forever, but then living to bless Joseph’s children. Along these lines, imagine Joseph’s elation as he sits his great grandsons, the grandchildren of Ephraim and Manasseh, on his knees (50: 23). The names Ephraim and Manasseh, thus, evoke for us the values of passing Judaism on from one generation to the next and of giving pleasure to our elders.

6) Manhigut — Leadership

Joshua, Moses’ successor as leader of the Jewish people, is from the tribe of Ephraim. It is Joshua, a brave and resolute warrior, who leads Israel to successfully conquer and settle Canaan. Another military leader, Gideon, whose story is recorded in chapters 6 through 8 of the Book of Judges, hails from the Tribe of Manasseh. Gideon proves to be a man of faith as he destroys the symbols of Midianite worship to foreign gods (Judges 6:25) and then declines the popular call to lead the people as their king, reminding them that only God is their ruler (Judges 8:22). Ephraim and Manasseh produce two of Israel’s greatest leaders. When we use their names to bless our children, we express our hope that our children, too, will demonstrate leadership among the Jewish people.

As you can see, there’s more to Ephraim and Manasseh than first meets the eye. They names have come to be associated not only with a formative period of our history but also with core Jewish values. It is my hope that when Jewish parents bless their sons for “God to make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” they will do so mindful of the values we have associate with these two otherwise common Israelites. Most of us, after all, are more like Ephraim and Manasseh than, say, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses. We are simply Jews. If nothing else, though, Ephraim and Manasseh remind us that even ordinary Jews stand for things that are quite extraordinary.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan

[1] “Intra-generational family adoptions are well attested in the ancient Near East…. A striking analogy to the present narrative is provided by an Akkadian legal document from Ugarit recording the adoption of a grandson by a grandfather who then makes him his heir.” Sarna, Nahum, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 325.

[2] There are actually two accounts of the 12 tribes. One includes both Levi and Joseph, but not Ephraim and Manasseh. In this case, the tribes represent the genealogical descendents of Jacob, each tribe corresponding to one of Jacob’s biological sons. The other, an undoubtedly later accounting, includes Ephraim and Manasseh, but not Levi and Joseph. Here, the tribes represent the religious, political and geographic confederation of the tribes seen in the arrangement of camps around the Tabernacle and in the division of territories in the Land of Israel. It is important to note that Levites were not exactly counted in this confederation as they were dedicated solely to the service of the Tabernacle and Temple and lived among and were supported by the other tribes.

[3] See excerpts from Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin at https://www.ou.org/torah/parsha/rabbi-goldin-on-parsha/menashe_and_ephraim_tying_up_loose_ends/

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