To Be Chosen is to Always Choose: Blessing Ephraim and Menashe

As the sun gently sets, ushering each Shabbat, we pause to bless our sons with the names of Yaakov’s grandsons, “May you be like these two, like Ephraim and Menashe.” We do so with love and tenderness rarely, if ever, pausing to wonder, what makes these two so singular among the worthy of Israel that their names should be the ones we speak when bestowing blessings upon our own sons and grandsons? After all, they did not hear God’s command and leave the land of their birth. They did not wrestle with an angel of God. They did not climb God’s holy mountain. Of all the many astonishing men of our tradition, men who sacrificed, who led us through the many wildernesses we’ve endured, who have brought us back to God when we have strayed, so very many figures to be admired and emulated… how is it that when we lay our hands upon our sons and grandsons it is these two names we name?

The answer is at once simple and profound. These two, raised in Egypt, surrounded by the royal trappings befitting their father’s lofty position managed to do something that can prove to be elusive in the face of too much comfort – they managed to remain good sons and devoted grandchildren.

What? That’s it? Yes, for by doing so, by being the next chain in a growing tradition, they convinced their loving zayde to bless them. In doing so, he makes clear that he hopes every generation’s grandchildren would be like his own, like Ephraim and Menashe. In them, Yaakov saw a true miracle – despite all that Yosef, his beloved son, had been through in his life, from the cruelty he’d suffered at the hands of his own brothers, to the false accusations in the house of Potiphar, to his imprisonment and ultimate redemption and elevation in the court of Pharaoh, he remained true; he had managed to teach them the traditions of Avos.

Despite the weight of his responsibilities as the Egyptian viceroy, he passed along the masoret and, perhaps more importantly, they embraced it.

Accomplishment is not what defined them. The thing that defined them was continuation, to accept the love and knowledge of their father and grandfathers and to pass it along; to be a link in the endless chain.

How easy would it have been for them to have become enamored with the wealth, the customs and the manners of Egypt delivered to them as ones favored in Pharaoh’s court. How much easier it would have been for them to go “off the derech” than our own children who, rather than the opulence of Pharaoh’s court are surrounded by Torah, mitzvot, chinuch, chassidus, rebbes, rebbeim, chadorim, sefarim, thousands of kosher products and on and on.

Yaakov wanted all grandchildren to always be like Ephraim and Menashe. His desire was not just because he was a doting grandfather playing favorites with his two einiklach. No, Yaakov was very clear-eyed in his divinely inspired blessings, as evidenced by those he bestowed upon his own children. He understood the importance of the perfect blessing being given to the one God intended. Therefore, Yaakov dispensed blessings only to those who rightfully deserved them.

Ephraim and Menashe maintained the highest level of character and spirituality while living in a society and culture devoid of either. For them, nothing “Jewish” came easy. They were not like our own children for whom everything “Jewish” comes easily, as if everything Jewish had always been available to every Jew, and always would be. Perhaps it is all too easy and comfortable for our children. Ephraim and Menashe weren’t Jewish because they lived in a neighborhood filled with fine yeshivot. They weren’t Jewish because they grew up in a community filled with kosher markets, and thriving shuls.

No, they were Jewish because they wanted to be in the marrow of their bones.

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

Ephraim and Menashe shared another quality, one too often overlooked. Unlike every other narrative of brothers who preceded them in the Torah, there was no rivalry between them. Jealousy did not curse their relationship as it did Cain and Abel. They weren’t at odds like Yitzchak and Yishmael. They did not fight in their mother’s womb Yaakov and Esav. They bore each other none of the animosity shown Yosef by his brothers.

Ephraim and Menashe represent the break from this unhappy pattern. They were and remained brothers in the truest sense.

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.

And lest anyone think the mutual love and respect between Ephraim and Menashe was not well-earned should pay close attention to the moment Yaakov reversed hands and declared the “younger brother shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations”.

Everything the Torah teaches about brothers before this point would have led us to expect hatred and strife to follow; would have expected Ephraim to “lord it over” his brother. But no, there is none of that. There is 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. Despite such disparities, too we pray for our children the gift of peace! What a blessing! 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.” There is no mistake.  Yaakov behaved mindfully. He crossed his hands, extending his right hand diagonally toward Ephraim, who was on his left side and his left hand upon Menashe, who was on his right – contrary to what tradition would have dictated!

I have often pondered this mysterious “choreography”, convinced that there had to have been a very specific reason Yaakov did what he did. I began to understand when I came upon a compelling insight offered by my grandfather, HaGaon Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran ZT’L.

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.

We don’t always “get” what the Beth Din, what our chachamim teach us. Sometimes their decree seems like “right is left, and left is right”. Even so, we must hold fast to our faith. As God Himself says, reassuring us, “You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you right or left.”

In due time the wisdom and truth 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. 

This total commitment and unquestioned faith is the unique characteristic of Ephraim and Menashe. Their absolute commitment to all that was sacred to Yaakov and Yosef and their ability to overcome all distractions and challenges part of living in an “Egypt” in order to be fully Jewish, along with their lack of discord and rivalry are what inspired Yaakov to pray that all future generations’ children be “like Ephraim and Menashe.”

So, we pray and bless our children, praying that they will in fact be 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.