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By: Rabbi Norman T. Roman, M.A.H.L., R.J.E., D.D., Temple Kol Ami,

West Bloomfield

, Michigan, USA

Earning the Blessing of Israel

Earning the Blessing of Israel

“Jacob said to Joseph: ‘Your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt, shall be mine. Ephraim and Menasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon’ …. Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them… Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand – to Israel’s left – and Menasseh with his left hand – to Israel’s right – and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menasseh’s head – this crossing his hands – although Menasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed Joseph, saying: ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked …bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled…’ When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Menasseh’s … But his father objected, saying, ‘I know, my son, I know’ … And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh’. Thus he put Ephraim before Menasseh.” (Bereishit 48:3-20)

“Jacob said to Joseph: ‘Your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt, shall be mine. Ephraim and Menasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon’ …. Israel’s eyes were dim with age; he could not see. So [Joseph] brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them… Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand – to Israel’s left – and Menasseh with his left hand – to Israel’s right – and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menasseh’s head – this crossing his hands – although Menasseh was the firstborn. And he blessed Joseph, saying: ‘The God in Whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked …bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled…’ When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Menasseh’s … But his father objected, saying, ‘I know, my son, I know’ … And he blessed them that day, saying: ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh’. Thus he put Ephraim before Menasseh.” (Bereishit 48:3-20)

As the Book of Bereishit draws to a close, we realize that much of our ancestors’ history has been marked with tension and rivalry between brothers (and sisters), fighting over birthrights, parental love, and competing claims for blessing. Yet in this week’s Parasha, Jacob’s final blessing, indeed in the very phrase through which Jewish parents to this day bless their sons, Menasseh and Ephraim are given a unique position.

As the Book of Bereishit draws to a close, we realize that much of our ancestors’ history has been marked with tension and rivalry between brothers (and sisters), fighting over birthrights, parental love, and competing claims for blessing. Yet in this week’s Parasha, Jacob’s final blessing, indeed in the very phrase through which Jewish parents to this day bless their sons, Menasseh and Ephraim are given a unique position.

In Abraham’s immediate family, there were two wives/mothers (Hagar and Sarah), who competed for the recognition and future role of their sons (Ishmael and Isaac) as future leader of the clan. Isaac had only one wife (Rebecca), but he and she differed in their attitudes towards their twin sons (Esau and Jacob); the boys fought, aware that their parents did not view them equally. The four mothers of Jacob’s children (Leah, Rachel, Bilha and Zilpa) each supported her own children; arguments and contention played out in the strained relationships between all “the B’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel”. But Joseph, his wife Asnat, and their sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were spared from the bitter environment of sibling rivalry. As parents, they must have agreed treat the boys equally. And Jacob/Israel, in meeting his grandsons for the first time, “saw” this (the Hebrew text in 48:8 is “va-yar Yisrael”, translated by some, including Dr. Plaut, as “noticing” them), and must have immediately sensed the difference.

In Abraham’s immediate family, there were two wives/mothers (Hagar and Sarah), who competed for the recognition and future role of their sons (Ishmael and Isaac) as future leader of the clan. Isaac had only one wife (Rebecca), but he and she differed in their attitudes towards their twin sons (Esau and Jacob); the boys fought, aware that their parents did not view them equally. The four mothers of Jacob’s children (Leah, Rachel, Bilha and Zilpa) each supported her own children; arguments and contention played out in the strained relationships between all “the B’nai Yisrael – the children of Israel”. But Joseph, his wife Asnat, and their sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were spared from the bitter environment of sibling rivalry. As parents, they must have agreed treat the boys equally. And Jacob/Israel, in meeting his grandsons for the first time, “saw” this (the Hebrew text in 48:8 is “va-yar Yisrael”, translated by some, including Dr. Plaut, as “noticing” them), and must have immediately sensed the difference.

For the first time in his memory (his mind was sharp, though “his eyes were dim with age”), and even for the first time in the stories he knew of his parents and grandparents, Jacob witnessed sibling

harmony

, unconditional brotherly love. How? Tradition and custom dictated (as Jacob well knew) that the first-born, in this case Menasseh, should have received his grandfather’s blessing through the right hand, and Ephraim, the younger, through the left. Joseph knew this also, and tried to correct his father’s action when Jacob crossed his hands.

But the boys themselves did not speak

. Menasseh did not protest the mistake. Unlike Ishmael and Esau in earlier generations, and unlike Joseph’s own brothers, Menasseh did not complain. He quietly relinquished his own birthright as the first-born, with neither anger nor jealousy.

For the first time in his memory (his mind was sharp, though “his eyes were dim with age”), and even for the first time in the stories he knew of his parents and grandparents, Jacob witnessed sibling

harmony

, unconditional brotherly love. How? Tradition and custom dictated (as Jacob well knew) that the first-born, in this case Menasseh, should have received his grandfather’s blessing through the right hand, and Ephraim, the younger, through the left. Joseph knew this also, and tried to correct his father’s action when Jacob crossed his hands.

But the boys themselves did not speak

. Menasseh did not protest the mistake. Unlike Ishmael and Esau in earlier generations, and unlike Joseph’s own brothers, Menasseh did not complain. He quietly relinquished his own birthright as the first-born, with neither anger nor jealousy.

Jacob realized his error; or was it a test? We can only imagine his grandfatherly pleasure, his sense of fulfillment and pride, as he witnessed Menasseh’s respect. Jacob was inspired to bless all of the people Israel in their name: “Through you will the people of Israel find blessing from God if they follow the path like Ephraim and Menasseh”. Brothers (and sisters) who can work together and live together in love and peace.

Jacob realized his error; or was it a test? We can only imagine his grandfatherly pleasure, his sense of fulfillment and pride, as he witnessed Menasseh’s respect. Jacob was inspired to bless all of the people Israel in their name: “Through you will the people of Israel find blessing from God if they follow the path like Ephraim and Menasseh”. Brothers (and sisters) who can work together and live together in love and peace.

Hence the words have been repeated on Shabbat throughout the generations: “May God make you as Ephraim and Menasseh!” Our prayer today continues: May the children of Israel, wherever we dwell, remember that it is our blessing to live with sibling harmony, with mutual respect, and with familial love. We hear too much of the strident, harsh and even hateful words these days. We can disagree about many things, but we must remember to do so agreeably, within the context of our inherited blessing.

Our Parasha is known by the first word: “Vayechi – Jacob lived”. Yet the reading also includes his death and that of Joseph, as well. Dr. Plaut, in his rich commentary to this scene, writes: “Jacob sees his life spread before him. He … knows in this moment that his own complex life is crowned with hope, a hope that is represented by the God of his fathers and by the two boys at his side. His life is completed: the blessing … has now passed down to his children’s children.” (p. 305)

Our Parasha is known by the first word: “Vayechi – Jacob lived”. Yet the reading also includes his death and that of Joseph, as well. Dr. Plaut, in his rich commentary to this scene, writes: “Jacob sees his life spread before him. He … knows in this moment that his own complex life is crowned with hope, a hope that is represented by the God of his fathers and by the two boys at his side. His life is completed: the blessing … has now passed down to his children’s children.” (p. 305)

May Israel’s hope and blessing be our inheritance, as well. And may it be made manifest in Derech Eretz, Ahava v’Shalom, in respect, love, and peace.