Parashat Va-y’hi

Friday, January 10, 2020 /13 Tevet, 5780
Parashat Va-y’hi Genesis 47:28-50:26

Dear Friends,

As Jacob reaches the end of his life, he prepares to offer his deathbed blessings to each of his sons. Although it was customary to offer the blessings to the eldest son first, Jacob begins with offering a blessing to Joseph’s sons, Menashe and Ephraim. The sages wonder why Jacob would bless his grandchildren before his own children.

Equally confusing is the method by which he blesses the two boys.

“Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand—to Israel’s left—and Menashe with his left hand—to Israel’s right, and brought them close to him. But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger and his left hand on Menashe’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Menashe was the first born.” (Genesis 48:13-14)

Tradition would dictate that Jacob place his right hand on the head of Menashe, the eldest of the two sons. Joseph assumed that Jacob had made an error. “The other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head,” he explained. “I know my son, I know” came the reply. “He too shall become a people and he too shall be great. Yet his youngest brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations.” (Genesis 48:18-19)

The book of Genesis is replete with stories of eldest sons losing their blessings of the firstborn. Isaac is favored over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, and Joseph over all his elder brothers. In each case, the resulting jealousy and resentment leads to decades-long hardship and ill-will.

When Joseph witnesses Jacob give the firstborn blessing to his younger son, he has flashbacks. Fifteenth century commentator Abarbanel explains that Joseph fears that Menashe would be as resentful of Ephraim as Joseph’s brothers once were of him. Jacob knew better. Ephraim and Menashe were not like their father. They received their respective blessings joyfully.

Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, of the 19th century explains that when Jacob uplifted Ephraim, “Ephraim did not exalt himself over Menashe and Menashe was not jealous of Ephraim.” Jacob thought to himself, “If only all the children of Israel could be like this, free of arrogance and envy!”

Whereas their forefathers fought to receive the prized blessings of their ancestors, Ephraim and Menashe delighted in the blessings they received. Each Friday night, Jewish boys receive the blessing, “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” In saying these words, we offer the implied prayer, “May you always delight in one another’s blessings, and may you take to heart the greatest teaching of Ephraim and Menashe — that above all us, what matters is the relationships we build.”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail