Yaakov’s Blessing: Ephraim, Menashe and a Lesson for Our Lives

“May you be like these two, like Ephraim and Menashe...”

As a quiet dusk settles on Friday evening, ushering in Shabbat, we bless our sons with the names of Yaakov’s grandsons. When we do, do we ever pause to wonder, what makes these two so singular among the generations of Israel that their names should be on our lips when blessing our own children? Why, of all the great and righteous men who stand out in the long millennia of Jewish history and experience, should these two names carry such power and grace?

For starters, these two, raised in Egypt and surrounded by the comforts and honor befitting their father’s position managed something too often elusive in the face of great wealth and power – they managed to remain good sons and devoted grandchildren. By doing so they ensured that there would be a next link in the great chain of Jewish tradition. In blessing them, Yaakov wanted for all future generations the indescribable gift that had been given to him, the knowledge that the next generation and the one after that would remain true to Jewish tradition. What loving zayde wouldn’t bless them!

We must remember that the Egyptian court and culture was not welcoming to Jewish tradition. Far from it. For these two, nothing “Jewish” came easy. In this, they were not like our own children for whom everything “Jewish” comes easily. Ephraim and Menashe weren’t raised in a neighborhood of other caring, devoted Jewish families; a neighborhood filled with fine yeshivot and thriving shuls. They didn’t grow up in a community with kosher markets on every other street corner. No, they were Jewish in spite of their surroundings; they were Jewish because they desired it in the marrow of their bones.

Yaakov understood that this quality, this determination to be Jewish, is what we want for our children and grandchildren; a level of devotion and commitment that comes from the kishkes, that comes from within.

Their love of Jewishness would have been reason enough for Yaakov to bless them, but they possessed another quality that differentiated them in the Torah narrative – there was no rivalry between them. Jealousy did not curse their relationship as it did Cain and Abel’s. They weren’t at odds like Yitzchak and Yishmael. They did not fight in their mother’s womb like Yaakov and Esav. They bore each other none of the animosity shown Yosef by his brothers.

Ephraim and Menashe represent a clear and necessary break from such cruel rivalry. They were and remained brothers in the truest sense. There was peace between them. They demonstrated that as sure as the love and respect between husband and wife ensure shalom bayit, peace among siblings makes for a life of joy and blessing.

The love and respect between Ephraim and Menashe was deeply held. To understand just how deeply, we need only pay close attention to the moment of Yaakov’s blessing, when he reversed hands and declared that the “younger brother shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations.” Even at that moment, when the younger received a blessing before the elder, there was no discord! Certainly, everything we knew about Torah brothers to this point would have led us to expect strife to follow. And yet, there was no anger, no animosity, only peace.

Life is rarely fair, even to siblings. One has talents the other does not. One is taller. One has a stutter. One is successful. The other struggles. Despite such disparities, we pray for our children the gift of peace, that our children live peacefully together forever on, even after we parents, and grandparents have left this worldly stage.

Yosef brought his two sons Menashe (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger) to receive Yaakov’s blessings. “Joseph took the two of them - Ephraim with his right hand, to Yisrael’s left, and Menashe with his left, to Yisrael’s right – and he drew them close to him.” In the next posuk we learn however, that Yisrael did not take his cue from Yosef, but rather “extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head though he was younger and his left hand on Menashe’s head.”

Yosef protested but nothing Yosef said could convince his father that he had erred. Yaakov declares, “I know, my son, I know.”

I have often pondered this mysterious “choreography”, convinced that there had to have been a very deliberative reason for Yaakov’s blessing. I only began to understand when I came upon a compelling insight offered by my grandfather, HaGaon Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran ZT’L, and in doing so began to appreciate the source of the brothers’ goodwill.

My grandfather references the well-known posuk (in Devarim 17:11) where we are told to always and without exception follow the decisions of the beth din (court), even if, “you are convinced that they are wrong”. Rashi tells us that even if the court seems to be saying that “right is left, and left is right”, still we must listen. The last word always belongs to the beth din.

Lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’small – You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.”

We are not to question the beth din but rather we are to say, “God who enjoined the Mitzvot, commanded that I perform all His commandments in accordance with all that they, who stand before Him, teach me to do...” In other words, the Beth Din HaGadol, are the emissaries of God Himself.

Their word is God’s word.

My grandfather teaches (Yalkut HaChanochi 5) that the true meaning of the Sifri cited by Rashi is found in Midrash Tanchuma (Naso 29), “A person should not say, ‘I will not fulfill the commandments of the elders, since they are not from the Torah.’” That is, they should not say, “I will not follow the ruling of the Beth Din.  As the Torah notes, ‘And you shall do according to...the law which they will instruct you.’” (Devarim 17:10-11) As God declares in Job (22:28) “You will decree, and it will be fulfilled for you.”

We follow the Beth Din because God agrees with the Beth Din.

My grandfather likens this to what is written about Yaakov at the time that he blessed Menashe and Ephraim. He made left right and right left. “And he placed Ephraim before Menashe. He made the younger go before the older; and HaShem fulfilled his decree.”

From this my grandfather divined the lesson that we are not to stray from what our elders – chachamim teach us. Yaakov switched right and left, something that, on its face, strikes us as wrong – after all, Menashe is the elder, should not he receive the blessing? But then we learn that God Himself affirms Yaakov’s “decision” when Ephraim’s tribe was the first to offer korbanot when the Sanctuary was dedicated.

When Yaakov declares, “I know, he (Menashe) too will become a people and he too will become great; yet his younger brother (Ephraim) shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations” it is not simply a prophecy, but rather a decree.

What lay at the heart of Ephraim and Menashe’s embrace of Judaism? The very same thing that formed the foundation of the bond between them – a respect of the authority of tradition and God. This too is the reason we bless our children and grandchildren in their names, so that the generations that follow will understand the power of mesorah and tradition to keep the chain of Jewish life from breaking.

In due time the wisdom and truth of our obedience will become evident. This is the message Yaakov has left for us. Absolute faith in God and in His duly appointed chachomim – the Beth Din HaGadol sitting adjacent to the Beit HaMikdash – is the key to pure Jewish existence. God, His Torah and its legitimate interpreters, not straying an iota from authentic Torah. 

Total commitment and unquestioned faith is the unique characteristic of Ephraim and Menashe. Their faith led them to overcome all the distractions and challenges of their time and culture so that they could be fully Jewish; it allowed them to live in peace and harmony, without discord and rivalry.

So, like Yaakov, we pray and bless our children, praying that they will not just be “like” these brothers but will be in fact Ephraims and Menashes; that they will embrace being Jewish in their hearts and souls and that they will pursue and enjoy peace with each other.