Ephraim, Menashe, and the Blessing of Children

One of the enduring and endearing customs in the Rossoff home is the blessing of the children at the Shabbat table. Growing up, I asked God’s blessings on our two daughters with the words “Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Leah, v’Rachel – May God make you like Sarah and Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, who carried forth the life of our People.” I blessed our two sons with these words, “Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’cheMenasheh – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe, who carried forth the life of our People.” Fran would conclude by reciting the Priestly Blessing over them.

While we are enjoying our empty nest years, there is a palpable void around our Shabbat table when none of our children is there. That is why the Shabbat of Thanksgiving was so very special to us, since, for the first time in a long time, our four children, now ages 25-30, bowed their heads and together received these blessings.

Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – these are familiar names to us. We know their stories and appreciate the strength, courage, and family devotion with which we would hope our daughters would be imbued. But who were Ephraim and Menashe? And what was so special about them that Jacob/Israel would, in last week’s Torah portion, declare that these would be the two names through which all future sons of Israel would be blessed?

There are many answers to this question. Here are two:

Menashe and Ephraim were the two sons of Joseph. Born and raised in Egypt, they walked like Egyptians, talked like Egyptians, and dressed like Egyptians. But on the inside, they were Israelites! Menashe and Ephraim were the first Jews to be raised in two civilizations. They had Hebrew names, but because Hebrew was their second language, they were the first Jewish children who had to go to Hebrew School! They embraced two civilizations, and still went on to become two of the largest tribes of Israel, carrying forth the life of our People. And is this not what we want for our children as well, they who also live in two civilizations?

The other reason we pray that our sons be like the sons of Joseph is that they are the first prominent brothers in Genesis who don’t fight, the first in which no sibling rivalry is even hinted at, even though there is justification for jealousy between them.

Take a look at the sweep of Genesis and you will note the thread of sibling rivalry running from the first chapters until the last. Time after time, the younger is put before the older and time after time, the result is conflict and family strife. The “younger superseding the older” motif begins with Cain and Abel, picks up with Ishmael and Isaac, continues with Esau and Jacob, and then through to Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph’s sons, the older Menashe and the younger Ephraim, are the last siblings to come on the scene. In last week’s portion, their grandfather Jacob calls them before him for a deathbed blessing. Joseph positions them in front of Jacob so that his father’s right hand would be placed on Menashe’s head, giving him the stronger firstborn blessing. But Jacob purposely crosses his arms and places the right hand on Ephraim’s head, once again giving preference to the younger brother. That preference is enshrined and perpetuated with Jacob’s proclaiming the formula of future blessings, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe,” the younger coming before the older. Once again, the younger brother “wins.”

However, this time when the younger supersedes the older, it does not matter. This time, there is no sibling rivalry, no jealousy, and no family strife. That is why we want our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe – they are the first two brothers who don’t fight. Despite their inverted roles, they don’t see themselves as rivals. They harbor neither resentment nor jealousy. At the end of Genesis, Menashe and Ephraim bring the saga of sibling rivalry to a happy close and exemplify the words of the Psalmist: “Hiney mah tov – How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in peace.” And again, who would not want to see that kind of brotherly love among their sons?

Come to think of it, would we all not want our sons to have the strength, the devotion, the courage, and dedication to family of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? Likewise, would we not like our daughters to have the sibling loyalty of Ephraim and Menashe?  I believe that deep down in the heart of just about every Jewish parent is the wish that his/her child(ren) live and thrive in two civilizations, as these two sons of Joseph did long ago, living meaningful Jewish lives in a non-Jewish world, carrying forth the life of our People!


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