Upon hearing that Yaakov has fallen ill, Yosef gathers his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and rushes to his father’s bedside.
During the ensuing conversation Yaakov takes two dramatic steps that carry powerful practical implications for the future.
1. Yaakov proclaims that Menashe and Ephraim will be considered on par with his own children in the determination of his legacy. Through this statement, Yaakov creates the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe in place of the single tribe of Yosef.
2. The patriarch blesses his grandchildren as follows: “Through you will Israel bless, by saying: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe…’” To this day, Jewish parents bless their sons with the formula “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe,” while daughters are blessed with the prayer “May God make you like Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.”
Why are Ephraim and Menashe counted among the tribes of Israel? No other grandchild of Yaakov is accorded this singular honor.
Why are Ephraim and Menashe chosen as the paradigms for our sons to emulate rather than the patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? Do the oldest sons of Yosef possess specific character traits that we wish upon our own children or are we arbitrarily fulfilling Yaakov’s prophetic prediction: “Through you [Ephraim and Menashe] will Israel bless…”?
Ephraim and Menashe’s central place in both the legacy and blessing of Yaakov reflects a number of critical ideas. The selection of Yosef ’s children to this position, in fact, brings closure to a series of interlocking themes that have coursed through the Yosef story, and, in some cases, the entire book of Bereishit.
The tribal legacy: Yosef ’s reward.
We will see that Reuven, Yaakov’s eldest son, loses the firstborn’s leadership role as a result of his personal failings. In his place, Yehuda earns and assumes those responsibilities of leadership.
There are two other privileges of the birthright, however, which Reuven loses, as well. The honor of religious stewardship is reassigned to Levi while the double inheritance normally accorded to the firstborn is transferred to Yosef.
The creation of the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe can thus be attributed to Yosef ’s merit. As a reward for his righteousness and in acknowledgment of his achievements, Yosef receives his “double portion” as the progenitor of these two tribes.
Emphasizing Yosef ’s aloneness.
While the creation of two tribes bearing the names of Yosef ’s sons can certainly be seen as a reward for Yosef ’s righteousness, this same phenomenon, in ironic fashion, underscores a tragic dimension of his life. Yosef ’s name does not appear in the list of tribes along with his brothers. Yosef ’s lonely position as the ultimate outsider is thus cemented and preserved for posterity.
Yosef never succeeds in becoming part of any society in which he finds himself. Although wildly successful in Egypt, he never earns the full trust of the Egyptians. Even more significantly, he is never fully accepted into the company of his brothers, who do not have confidence in his intentions right through the end.
A delicate balance, mirroring Yosef ’s complex life, is thus struck in the tribal system. Yosef’s material success will be reflected in the double portion he receives through his sons. His isolation, however, is also mirrored in Yosef ’s own conspicuous and now eternal absence from the company of his brothers.
Reaching across the generations.
Yaakov is the first personality in the Torah and the only patriarch to openly relate not only to his children, but to his grandchildren, as well.
The last patriarch, however, goes a major step further. He concretizes his relationship with Ephraim and Menashe through the creation of tribes bearing their names, thereby ensuring that the tribal system of Israel will span the generations. With great foresight, he consciously weaves the concepts of the extended family and of intergenerational relationships into the very fabric of our national structure. (Note that building upon this phenomenon, Yaakov’s son Yosef is the first individual in the Torah to interact with his great grandchildren.5) These relationships will remain indispensable to the transmission and development of Jewish tradition across the ages.
The blessing: sibling harmony.
Ephraim and Menashe succeed in reversing a tragic trend which characterizes sibling relationships from the time of Kayin and Hevel through the patriarchal period. They are the first major set of brothers, recorded in the Torah, whose relationship is not marked by jealousy, rivalry and strife. The love between Ephraim and Menashe apparently endures even when Ephraim is given precedence by Yaakov over his older brother, Menashe.
A world apart.
Yaakov reacts with wonder when he reflects upon meeting his grandchildren towards the end of his life. This reaction mirrors the unexpected nature of Ephraim and Menashe’s success. These two children grew up in exile, separated from their extended family since birth, yet remained identifying members of their family.
The patriarch, therefore, selects his two grandchildren as the paradigm for blessings across the ages. Their selection sends a powerful message across the turbulent history of our often scattered people.
“May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe,” we bless our sons. May you always be spiritually connected to your family and people, no matter where you live, no matter how physically distant you may be.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.