Posted on December 12, 2013 by Emma Sevitz
This week's PCJE dvar Torah comes from Susan Yammer, beloved teaching coach
This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Nechama bat Velvel V’Aliza, on the occasion of her 13th Yahrzeit.
Towards the end of our Parasha, in Bereishit 48:20, the Torah states, So he [Yaakov] blessed them on that day, saying, “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe,’ “and he put Ephraim before Menashe. On his death bed, Yaakov takes aside his two grandsons, the sons of Yosef, and blesses them before blessing any of his children. The blessing Yaakov gives his grandsons becomes the model for parental blessing.
Why do Ephraim and Menashe merit this honor? Why does Yaakov choose to bless his 2 grandsons before his own sons, even before he blesses their father, Yosef? Why does this story come to close the book of Bereshit?
Many different explanations are offered as to why Ephraim and Menashe received blessings. For example, the Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) in his commentary on the Torah Ha’amek Davar, notes that each grandson possessed unique characteristics of greatness that made him deserving of beracha. Ephraim was great in Torah and adhering to a spiritual life, while Manasseh was great in the political realm and caring for the community.
Yaakov’s own words offer another possible explanation for blessing his grandsons. In Bereishit 48:11, the Torah states, And Israel said to Yosef, “I had not expected to see [even] your face, and behold, God has shown me your children too.” Meeting his grandchildren heightens Yaakov’ sense of gratitude at finding Yosef alive and may have been enough to prompt Yaakov to decide to bless his grandsons.
But why bless them before blessing his children? Until Parashat Vayechi, the model of sibling relationships in Sefer Bereishit, was one of strife, competition, and murderous jealousy. Cain and Abel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav, and even Yaakov’s own sons are models of discord, conflict, and ill-will. The jealousy and deceit between the brothers and Yosef cause their father Yaakov years of grief and despair. Indeed after, Yaakov gives Ephraim, the younger son, the blessing of the older son, jealousy and strife could easily have ensued (as it did for their grandfather, Yaakov). Instead the pattern breaks. Ephraim and Menashe remain united as brothers and establish a new pattern of family interaction that is worthy of blessing. They break a pattern for the Israelite people that could have destroyed us. They choose to overcome jealousy and focus on unity, shalom bayit. Indeed, the next siblings we meet are Miriam, Aharon, and Moshe, who carry on the tradition of supportive and caring sibling relationships established by Ephraim and Menashe.
Yaakov’s own sons did not exemplify this value. They followed in the pattern of jealousy that was set before them. Perhaps Yaakov understood that the most important thing that his people needed was family unity. By blessing his grandsons first, Yaakov showed his sons that there is another path that he valued and supported.
This story comes at the end of the book of Bereshit because the end of Bereshit closes the story of the Israelite people as a family. In the next book, Shemot, we will form a nation, a nation that needs to survive hundreds of years of slavery in a foreign land. Without the model of Ephraim and Menashe to set us on our way, we may never have survived.
My mother was the hub of the wheel of her family. Her commitment to maintaining the unity of our family was one of her most wonderful qualities. One of many examples was her unshakeable commitment to inviting all our relatives (even those who did not get along with each other) to all smachot. For my mother, petty squabbles and jealousies were unworthy of attention and never more important than the bedrock value that families stay together. The lesson of Yaakov’s blessing of Ephraim and Menashe would have pleased her. יהי זכרה ברוך.