Blessing of Ephraim & Menashe
Jacob, realizing he is about to die, gathers his 12 sons to receive a blessing.
But first, Jacob calls upon two of his grandchildren ― Joseph's sons Ephraim and Menashe ― to receive blessings. Why would Jacob place priority on blessing grandchildren over children?
The commentators explain (and every grandparent knows) that even more than the joy of having children is the joy of having grandchildren. Why is this so?
Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships ― whether it is a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. But only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single generation. This is an effect of our spiritual soul which is rooted in infinity. Being a grandparent therefore connects us deeply to our uniqueness as human beings.
There is further significance to Jacob's blessings.
One of the most beautiful customs in Jewish life is for parents to bless their children at the start of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Girls receive the blessing: "May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." Boys, meanwhile, are blessed "to be like Ephraim and Menashe."
What happened to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?! Why were Ephraim and Menashe chosen instead as the subjects of this important tradition?
Ephraim and Menashe were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight. Abraham's two sons ― Isaac and Ishmael ― could not get along, and their disagreement forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. The next generation of Isaac's two sons ― Jacob and Esav ― were so contentious that Esav repeatedly sought to kill Jacob and instructed his descendants to do the same. And even the next generation of Jacob's sons sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt.
Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from this pattern. This explains why Jacob purposely switched his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim before the older Menashe. Jacob wished to emphasize the point that with these siblings, there is no rivalry. (see Genesis 48:13-14)
It is with this thought that parents bless their children today. For there is no greater blessing than peace among brothers. The words of King David ring true: "How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together." (Psalms 133:1)
This is the hope that God holds for all the Jewish people.
Rabbi Shimshon Rafel Hirsch (19th century Germany) offers another explanation of why Jewish boys throughout the ages receive the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe:
The first generations of Jews ― Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ― raised their children primarily in the Land of Israel. The Holy Land is the most hospitable Jewish environment, where the Talmud reports that "even the air makes you wise." In one sense, being Jewish in Israel is easy.
But due to famine, Jacob and his family all moved to Egypt. The next generation would grow up surrounded by paganism and immorality. The challenge was whether Judaism would survive amidst all the distractions of diaspora life.
Throughout the ages, Jewish parents have prayed that their children should be able to withstand the temptations of exile, and keep a strong, proud Jewish identity.
And it is not an easy task. Faced with the reality of Xmas season, for example, the easy option is to relegate one's Jewish identity to the back burner. That's why parents must constantly fight the tide by emphasizing Jewish values. The most effective tools are high-impact experiences like Jewish day schools and trips to Israel.
In the end, how does a parent gauge success?
Far more than children, it is grandchildren who reveal the foundation and future direction of a family line. Hence the popular saying: "The issue is not whether you have Jewish children, it's whether you have Jewish grandchildren."
What was the outcome with Ephraim and Menashe? Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice. Which is why we bless our children to be like them.
May we all be blessed with proud Jewish children ― and grandchildren.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons