In this week's Parsha, we find Yaakov sick on his deathbed as his family comes to say their final goodbyes and receive his saintly and powerful blessings one last time.
Yosef had long ago become a top viceroy to the king of Egypt. He gently approaches his father Yaakov with his two prized children, Efrayim and Menashe, for what was to be their last time visiting their grandfather. Yaakov gives a very peculiar and intriguing bracha to his grandchildren before passing away. We don't find this type of unique bracha used by anyone else throughout the Torah:
And [Yaakov] blessed them that day, saying: 'By this shall Israel bless, saying: 'G-d make these like Ephraim and as Menashe.' And he set Ephraim before Menashe.
The commentators point out that this blessing was not only intended to be given on a one-off basis by Yaakov, but was meant to be continuously transmitted to all future generations from parent to child. This bracha became one of the staples of Friday night at the Shabbos table before eating the seudah. Yaakov was saying that everyone should bless their children to be like Ephraim and Menashe.
The question that rings in our ears though, is – Why? What was so great about Ephraim and Menashe? Although they might have been tzaddikim and were children of Yosef, we have tons of influential figures and role models throughout Tanach with whom to base the bracha to our children! When you review the facts, they grew up in Egypt – which wasn't really such a great Jewish environment at that time. Not only that, but their cousins all had much more exposure from Yaakov and got to learn directly from him, whereas they only met Yaakov later in life. What was so uniquely special about Ephraim and Menashe?
Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, better known as the K'sav Sofer, asks this question and gives us an awesome and insightful answer that can help us shed light onto this seemingly strange blessing we give over to our children every Friday night.
Ephraim and Menashe each symbolized a powerful, yet different way to connect with Hashem in life. Ephraim was the grandson who sat and learned Torah day and night with his grandfather. He was involved in heavily pursuing spiritual matters. This is clearly a very important way to connect with Hashem, and Ephraim represented that realm. Menashe, on the other hand, was always by Yosef's side helping him run the administration and economy of Egypt. He was constantly involved with political and financial matters. As such, Menashe knew how to relate to the people and go out and become an active leader within Egypt. Judaism is comprised of both of these elements, and we all try to connect in our own unique ways and find a delicate balance between them.
This was precisely the bracha that Yaakov gave over to his two grandchildren and why he requested all future generations to uphold and raise their children alike. On a daily basis, we all deal with many different tasks and errands, and as such, the overall attention span of a human being has become surprisingly short. One second we could be davening or learning Torah, involved in the spiritual pursuit of connecting to our Creator – and the next second we could be heavily involved with the ins-and-outs of our daily routine, checking our e-mails, picking up groceries, etc. It seems as though we're caught between a rock and a hard place, either involved with spiritual pursuits or material ones. But that's where it usually ends. One of the final lessons of Yaakov Avinu was to teach us something that we often times forget; The true connection point of a Jew is dynamic. Yiddishkeit, unlike other religions, does not request of us to completely zone out materiality - but rather, it comprises both integrated elements of materiality and spirituality delicately interwoven into one unit that forms and strengthens our connection with Hashem! When we give over this impactful bracha of Yaakov Avinu to our children - we are trying to take the best of Ephraim and the best of Menashe, and simultaneously combine them into one powerful entity. This is the power of what Yiddishkeit has to offer us and our children - the best of all worlds.
Just think about how powerful our mitzvos are. They weave the best of ruchniyus and gashmiyus into a beautiful tapesty. Delicious Shabbos food, Kiddush wine, embracing our homes with mezuzos and seforim. Yet Hashem gives us the opportunity to sanctify something, even something that can be as physical and materialistic as food, with something as spiritual as a blessing. By saying Hashem's name over that food, we infuse, or “super-charge” it, with spirituality that gives our bodies and souls much needed nourishment. One of the many beauties of Yiddishkeit lies within the idea that even something as seemingly material as technology or food can be harnessed for spirituality – it's all a matter of our perspective.
As Jews we constantly live our lives with the mission of making this world a better place to live in. We can take this blessing of Yaakov – יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ-לֹקים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה – and proudly give it over to our future generations. The foremost way in which we can teach the next generation is to live and lead by example. Find the Ephraim and Menashe components of our own lives and in our own daily routines and make them shine. By taking the time to truly appreciate the brilliantly multifaceted nature of Yiddishkeit, we are granted the ability to take our environment around us at any given moment and infuse it with unbelievably awesome power of connecting to Hashem.
Have a great Shabbos!
~ Ethan Katz is a Rebbi and Director of Operations in Yeshivas Lev Zion