Parashat VaYehi- Ephraim and Menashe's Sticky Switchuation
14. 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 Manasseh's head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Manasseh was the firstborn.
יד. וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר וְאֶת שְׂמֹאלוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה שִׂכֵּל אֶת יָדָיו כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה הַבְּכוֹר:
Every Erev Shabbat Kodesh, there is a concept or Birkhat haBanim, whereby parents bless their children ‘Yasimekha E-lokim ke’Ephraim ve’ke’Menashe’, that HaKadosh Barukh Hu should bless our children as Ephraim and Menashe were blessed. But what about the rest of the twelve shevatim? How come we are given a blessing according to the two peripheral shevatim but not the main ones? Why did Yaakov Avinu give most attention specifically to Ephraim and Menashe, giving them the primary berakha? Even further, even between the two sons, why did Yaakov Avinu favor one over the other?!
If anybody knew the effects parent favoritism plays in sibling rivalry and jealousy, it is Yaakov Avinu with his own sons who sold Yosef. One would think that the last person to do such a thing would be Yaakov. Why would Yaakov Avinu feel so compelled to overlook these consequences yet again in order to bless Ephraim and Menashe? Even between the two sons of Yosef, why does Yaakov Avinu favor one over the other?! We see him blessing Ephraim over Menashe even though Menashe was the firstborn! It can’t get any more exclusive than that.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, in Emet le’Yaakov, calls our attention to the difference of names that Yosef gave to his sons. Both were born in Egypt. When the oldest one was born, he called him Menashe, ‘ki nashini E-lokim’ translated by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch ‘because HaShem has made my trouble and all my paternal house into creditors to me.’ When his second son is born he calls him Ephraim, ‘ki hifrani E-lokim’, ‘because HaShem has made me blossom in the land of my affliction’. There is a remarkable difference between these two names. When giving a name to Menashe, Yosef referred to his pain having to live in a foreign country with strong feelings of nostalgia for his paternal home. Although he was living in and even ruling a foreign land, yet his whole personality objected and protested against the culture of Egypt. Even though he was really involved in its governmental administration, he took no part in it. But, by the time that he had to decide on a name for his second son Ephraim, something had changed. While he was still aware of his unusual position as a Jew in a strange land, Yosef had somehow come to feel at home in this new country called Egypt.
While there is little doubt that Yosef was able to stay connected to HaKadosh Barukh Hu his entire life, the anti-Jewish surroundings of Egypt evidently had some influence on him based on how he named his children. He had to adapt himself towards his new environment and this may have had an effect on his identity…. and the identity of his children. Ephraim and Menashe were the only two grandchildren who were not born in Yaakov’s proximity. While the other grandchildren were raised in his own home and in Eres Yirael, Menashe and Ephraim were born in a foreign country and never had seen their grandfather. The question how these grandchildren would stay frum in such surroundings must have been constantly on Yaakov Avinu’s mind.
It is for this reason that he proclaims to Yosef: ‘Now your sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you to Egypt, are mine, Efraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuven and Shimon’. Despite their surroundings, Ephraim and Menashe were still able to maintain their strong connection to HaShem Yitbarakh.
We can now understand why Ephraim and Menashe might have been considered the most important; they represent a strong commitment to HaShem and Kedusha regardless of the impurities that surround them. However, what gave Ephraim more leverage over Menashe? Why was Ephraim more deserving of a berakha especially when he was the younger son?
Looking closer, we must conclude that there was a major difference between the kind of education these two sons received. When Menashe was born, Yosef was not yet fully involved with the administration of Egypt and still more of a foreigner, his mentality somewhere along the lines of: ‘Although I am the second ruler in this country, remember, that this does not affect my loyalty towards my God and my people. We are Jews and we will wait for the first opportunity to leave this country and return to our homeland.’ But, by the time Ephraim was born matters had changed. The feeling of being a foreigner had somehow faded, leaving him and his father, Yosef, more exposed to external influences.
It was for that reason that Yaakov Avinu was much more worried about the education of Ephraim than that of Menashe. Ephraim was much more vulnerable to the effects of the Egyptian religion and culture than Menashe was. Yaakov Avinu gave more attention to Ephraim, placing his right hand on Ephraim rather than to Menashe in order to strengthen him and encourage him; he needed it more. Menashe still came from a strong Jewish background and hence needed less special attention.
It is for this reason that it is most appropriate that parents give their children this berakha on Erev Shabbat Kodesh. We must realize that we are all vulnerable to the forces outside of us and must ensure to keep resistant against them in order to emerge kedoshim and connected to HaShem just like Ephraim and Menashe were able to do. When Yaakov Avinu switched his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim and his left on Menashe, he emphasized the value of maintaining these high levels of purity and commitment even when our environments are not so. If HaShem is everywhere, then we must be connected to Him everywhere we go are as well; it shouldn’t matter what the external environment is like.
May HaKadosh Barukh Hu bless each and every one of us with the special power both Ephraim and Menashe had to keep strong regardless of where we find ourselves and in this zekhut to build the Beit HaMikdash bimehera beyamenu so that we can serve HaShem Yitbarakh in our own land with an environment of pure kedusha and tehara.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom uMevorakh!!
Adapted from the teachings of Rav Nathan Lopes Cardozo