Posted by: Subway Conductor | January 1, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Vayechi

In this week’s portion Vayechi, we find the origin of a custom that we are familiar with. Jacob blesses Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Gen. 48:20) We use these very words when we bless our sons on Friday evenings at the Shabbos table.

Why Ephraim and Manasseh? This has been a matter of speculation for a long time. Why not, “May G-d make you like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” After all, when we bless our daughters on Friday evening, we say, “May G-d make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” This makes perfect sense since these are the matriarchs of the Jewish People.  So why Ephraim and Manasseh?

There are many possible answers, however, two suggest themselves to me and these answers bring together the two themes that we have been stressing in our discussion of the Joseph story. One answer is that Ephraim and Manasseh were born in Egypt, they are children of the Diaspora. They serve as models for countless generations of Jews who, living as a small minority in non-Jewish environments, have struggled to raise Jewish children. I have argued that the reason why so much of the Book of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph is because Joseph is a paradigm of a Jew living and even becoming successful in the Diaspora. This is the situation in which generations of Jews have found themselves over the centuries and it is our situation as well. How do we live as a small minority in the midst of a non-Jewish culture and still remain faithful Jews? Just as Joseph is a model for the Diaspora Jew, so Ephraim and Manasseh are models of how it is possible to raise Jewish children to be loyal and pious Jews in the Diaspora.

A second answer is that Ephraim and Manasseh are the first pair of brothers mentioned in the Torah who do not exhibit the usual sibling rivalry which we have seen is a ubiquitous theme of the Book of Genesis. We bless our children, mentioning their names, hoping that the strife and divisiveness which are too frequently a feature of Jewish life will not prevail in our children’s lives. Ephraim and Manasseh represent hope for the future.  Hope that the Jewish People will be unified. Our prayer for our descendants is that they will live in peace and harmony. Therefore, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”  

Good Shabbos!

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