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Key to Success

By: Rabb Jeremy Spierer

He [Yaakov] blessed them that day, saying: "In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: 'May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.'" So he put Ephraim ahead of Menashe (48:20).

These words in our Parsha serve as the source for parents to bless their male children on Friday night, "ישימך אלקים כאפרים וכמנשה." (Female children receive the blessing, ""ישימך אלקים כשרה, רבקה, רחל, ולאה.) Why does Yaakov Avinu, and why do we, invoke specifically Ephraim and Menashe among the tribes of Israel? Furthermore, why does Yaakov give preference to Ephraim, the younger son?

Ephraim and Menashe grow up in Egypt, surrounded by a foreign culture. Therefore, like their father Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe symbolize our ability to maintain our spiritual connection to and practical observance of Judaism under religiously challenging circumstances. Thus, at the onset of Shabbat, Hashem's distinctive gift to the Jewish people, we bless our children to remain proud Jews in every setting.

Furthermore, we note that Ephraim and Menashe do not exhibit any sibling rivalry. This harmony contrasts sharply to the discord we find among the first siblings in Sefer Bereishit, Kayin and Hevel – a discord leading to the world's first murder. Indeed, sibling rivalry, resulting from the recognition of one sibling over the other, fills the stories of Sefer Bereishit. Ephraim and Menashe stand as the exceptions. Menashe, the older sibling, suffers a slight at the hand of his grandfather, Yaakov, yet seems not to resent either Yaakov or his younger sibling, Ephraim. At the onset of Shabbat, a celebration of peace, we bless our children with warm, supportive sibling relationships. As parents and as students of Sefer Bereishit, we know few blessings more meaningful.

We have spoken of Ephraim and Menashe as a group, but have not discovered the unique strength Yaakov Avinu discerns in Ephraim to place him before Menasheh? Rabbi Jonatan Sacks suggests that Yaakov Avinu relates less to the personalities themselves, but rather to the sources of their names. Yosef names his first son Menashe, "forgetting," reflecting his desire to embrace his new stature in Egypt and forget the troubles of father's house. By the birth of his second son, Yosef still thanks God for his successes, yet acknowledges that his new surroundings will never become his home, "For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction (41:52)." In Israel, Yosef is despised; in Egypt celebrated. Still, Yosef refers to Egypt as the "land of my affliction." Indeed, Egypt develops into our first exile. By favoring Ephraim, Yaakov Avinu sends a clear message to all Jews in exile: never forget your home.   

Parenthetically, the Torah unambiguously relates the name Ephraim with the root פ.ר.ה, to be fruitful. At the same time, the דעת זקנים ובעלי תוספות, interpret Ephraim as "the two ashes." (The Hebrew / Biblical word for ash is אפר; thus אפרים means "double ashes.") The first "אפר" alludes to Avraham's statement, "אנכי עפר ואפר (18:27)." The second אפר"" refers to Yitzchak, offered as a korban on a fiery altar. In other words, when Yosef names his first son, he wants to forget his father's home. On the other hand, when he names his second son, he wants to connect specifically to his roots, to his two grandfathers, Avraham and Yitzchak. In this light, we can view this explanation of "Ephraim" as complementing the Torah's stated reason. Both explanations underscore the same connectedness to the traditions of our Avot.

To summarize, the episode between Yaakov and Ephraim and Menashe – the only scene in Sefer Bereshit to feature grandparents and grandchildren – provides two keys to the successful transmission of our tradition: close-knit family relationships and steadfast commitment to our roots. Every week we celebrate both strengths at the Shabbat table.

Shabbat Shalom.





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