Torah from Around the World #45

By: Rabbi Steven Katz, senior rabbi of

Hendon Reform Synagogue

in London

In many Jewish homes around the world the
names of Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph, the grandsons of Jacob, are
invoked as role models for today. We know so much more about other Biblical
personalities, surely the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – who pioneered
the early path of engagement with God and Covenant, or Moshe Rabbenu, who
personally encountered God at Sinai, or Isaiah or Amos who preached the moral
message of Judaism with great passion and zeal, would have been more obvious
choices as role models. Information about Ephraim and Menashe is confined to a
few verses. Yet every erev Shabbat, indeed for some also at havdalah, tradition
directs parents to bless their children with Jacobs’s words:

Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim u’ch

– May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Genesis 48:20)

Many of the


attribute the
weekly Shabbat invocation of Ephraim and Menashe to their lack of sibling
rivalry, a harmony that remained intact even after their grandfather clearly
favoured the younger Ephraim over his older brother. This harmony should serve,
they contend, as a timeless reminder of the importance of Shalom Bayit.

I would like to draw attention to another
quality shown by the brothers, the mitzvah of

bikkur cholim

visiting the sick. Jacob is described as the first person in history blessed
with the


, the privilege, of meeting and knowing his
grandchildren. Indeed, at the time of his death Jacob was blessed with more
than 70 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Yet the Torah recounts only Ephraim and
Menashe visiting their dying grandfather. Indeed Rashi suggests that it was
Ephraim who alerted his father Joseph to the mitzvah of making one last visit
to the dying Jacob.

Grandchildren generally receive much from the
hearts and hands of their grandparents, but they in turn, in later years, can
give something priceless in return. They can give their grandparents ‘


, life after death. How? Through telling their children stories of
their great grandfather and through living and then teaching the grandparents’
values to their great grandchildren. Indeed according to Midrash, the
grandchildren recite


at their grandfather’s bedside to reassure
him that Judaism and its values are in safe hands.

Naomi Remen, a cancer physician has written
with warmth and wisdom, a warmth and wisdom often framed in a Jewish context,
in her book

My Grandfather’s Blessings

, of her visits to terminally ill

She concludes one such visit with the
observation “When you strengthen the life around you, perhaps you
strengthen the life within you.”

Indeed when Ephraim and Menashe visit their
dying grandfather, he immediately gains strength in body –

Yisrael, va yeshev al ha mitta –

And Israel (Jacob) strengthened himself and
sat on his bed” (Genesis 48:3). He also gains strength in spirit as
confronted with his children and two grandchildren he maps out their individual
spiritual future and direction. So the mitzvah of

bikkur cholim

great fulfillment for both patient and visitor alike.

The visitor is spending time with the dying,
reaching out not only symbolically with his heart but literally with his
hand. The hand is symbolic of the need for the visitor to touch the
patient with his care, kindness and love and to permit the patient the
opportunity to reach out to the visitor with literally their dying thoughts,
fears, hopes, instructions.

In Gematria the Hebrew word for hand is


adding up to 14, so two hands reaching out to each other, touching each other
is 28, represented by the Hebrew word


– strength.

That brings us back to Naomi Remen’s
observation “When you strengthen the life around you, perhaps you strengthen
the life within you”.

B’riut, (health) Ko’ach (strength) and
Shabbat Shalom!

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