It’s a Shabbos meal. There’s the vibrance of the candles, the welcoming songs, and the beauty of the home. But just before the host makes Kiddish, the parents take a moment to bless the children. The daughters’ blessing invokes the merit and memory of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rochel, and Leah. And the sons’ blessing invokes none other than… uh… Ephraim and Menashah?
Good Little Jewish Boys
This week’s Torah portion ends the book of Bereishis with Jacob’s passing. And as per the usual swan song of a tzaddik, Jacob gives a series of blessings before he goes. But before he starts the main event of blessing his sons, he first has Joseph bring his grandsons. Those being Ephraim and Menashah.
Yes, these two mysterious menches are none other than Joseph’s sons. Jacob has them come in first and he not only gives them a blessing like the other brothers, he actually makes them his own sons! Can he do that? I knew the patriarchs could do miracles but familial records manipulation seems more Jedi-mind-trick than divine intervention. But seriously, Jacob is so impressed with them that he elevates them to the status of their uncles and makes them their own tribes. Pretty cool huh?
But what did they do to deserve such an upgrade in status? Ephraim and Menashah were the first Jews born outside the land of Israel. And though they looked the part of an Egyptian, the core of their being refused to assimilate. Remember, Ephraim and Menashah weren’t just some Jewish kids in Manhattan. They were the sons of the right hand of Pharaoh. Forget about the Jewish thing for a second. What are the chances that kids of the richest of the rich, most powerful of the powerful, in a city not too well known for its moral values, are gonna end up even remotely okay? Should I make a Kardashian’s joke? No? Okay. But you can see, Ephraim and Menashah managed to come through all of that as righteous good little Jewish boys. Mom couldn’t have been happier if they were doctors. But that’s not all…
Later is Greater
So when Jacob has the two sons come in for the blessing, he does this weird hand switch thing.
And Joseph took them both, Ephraim at his right, from Israel’s left, and Menashah at his left, from Israel’s right, and he brought [them] near to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed [it] on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger, and his left hand [he placed] on Menashah’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Menashah was the firstborn. (Bereishis 48:13-14)
In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been referring to the brothers as Ephraim and Menashah. But as stated in the text above, Menashah is the older of the two. He should get precedence. And in the blessing itself, the same issue comes up. Jacob blesses Ephraim with his right hand, the hand that is meant for giving blessings. (When we make blessings over food, etc, we are supposed to hold the object with our right hand.) The first born son has certain rights in Judaism. They are supposed to get a double portion of inheritance, they have a special celebration known as pidyon ha ben, they fast before Pesach, and they’re the first in line for legacies (i.e. if dad was a king). With this switching of the hands, Jacob effectively gave Ephraim first born status. Did Menashah just get screwed? Short answer yes… but!
Jewish history is fraught with the first born not getting along with their younger brother. Cain and Abel had more than a brotherly spat. Ishmael gets kicked out of the house so Issac can be the official heir. Jacob steals the birthright and blessing right out from under Esav. And of course, the 10 older brothers are not fans of Joseph. So when Menashah gets passed over for the blessings, it’s kinda par for the course.
But here’s the thing. Menashah was fine with it. It’s not because he was a pushover or because he had no ambition. He had such a level of humility and unity that, honestly, is beyond me to even comprehend. I remember when I was in second grade and I took it as a personal affront that any first grader might be taller than me. To this day, if I meet people who are more successful than me or “farther along” who happen to be younger than me, it stirs something deep inside of me. I happen to know I have my path with my unique struggles, and that the only person I should be measuring myself against is my own progress. But that doesn’t mean that nugget of jealously isn’t still there.
Ephraim and Menashah finally overcame a trapping that had plagued humanity since the beginning. By not worrying about the status of their brother, but instead their role in the Jewish people as a whole, they transcended their own brotherly ranking and were elevated to the level of their father and uncles. The lesson is that if you want to really move forward in life, don’t worry so much about your immediate troubles, but instead focus on the troubles of the whole. You just might find yourself in a whole new league.
May you and your children be like Ephraim and Menashah.
I like the story of the brothers and the Biblical references to other brothers who competed for the birth right blessing.
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