A major feature of this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) is the world’s first recorded Ethical Will, as Jacob approaches the end of his life. For each of his sons, he has either advice or predictions. Our Rabbis, however, wonder about his treatment of Joseph’s sons. There are many explanations, but let’s look at the most widely accepted.
I encourage you to read it for yourself, but just to review, Joseph presents his sons for the blessing from their grandfather, with Menashe, the first-born, at Jacob’s right hand and Efraim, the second-born on his left – the right hand being the “strong hand” immortalized throughout scripture as “The Right Hand Of God!” But then, something odd happens. Jacob crosses his hands and puts his right hand on Efraim and his left hand on Menashe (48:14), as he confirms Joseph’s children as tribes of their own! (48:5) Of course, this doesn’t escape Joseph’s notice, and he attempts to move his father’s hands. Jacob says that he knows what he is doing, and announces that “…the younger shall be greater than he.” (48:18-19). But the children were just that … Children! They hadn’t even had time to develop personalities yet! Why did Jacob do that?
At first, the Torah intimates that Jacob, at age 147, couldn’t see well (48:10). Thanks for providing a rationalization, but, as we can see, that wasn’t the issue. Let’s look first at the reasons Joseph gave for naming his children as he did, because there are some Rabbis who think this might be the cause. As we know, Hebrew names mean things. We learned in Miketz that Joseph’s first son, Menashe, is an amalgam of the verse: “Ki Ne’eshani Elo-im et kol amalee v’et kol beit Avi.” (Gen. 41:51) – “Because God has made me forget the hardship in my father’s home.” Our Rabbis interpret to this to mean that Joseph wanted to be reminded of the good things that he learned at his father’s hand and to forget the hardships of the time, and his persecution by his brothers. Jacob was Joseph’s “spiritual lifeline”, if you will – his spiritual center. For Joseph’s second son, Efraim, we find the root for the word “perach” which means “fruit. Joseph’s words were “…Ki hefrani Elo-im baEretz aniyee”….because God has made me fruitful in the land of my hardships!” (Gen. 41:52).
One rabbinic commentator suggests that while Joseph loved his father and, undoubtedly, learned far more from him than his brothers did, Joseph’s prosperity should take priority, and as such, the name “Efraim” should have come first. Hence, Jacob’s actions. Others suggest that Efraim’s name is based not in “perach” but in “efer” – “Ashes.” Now, why would anybody want to call their kid “Ashes”? The Rabbis claim that it refers to the two previous ancestors – Joseph’s grandfather and great grandfather. Abraham, when approaching God to save the people of Sodom, tells God that he is only “Afar v’Efer”(Gen. 18:27) – “Dust and ashes.” Isaac considered his own experience when his father, Abraham almost sacrificed him and left his “ashes” on the mountain. As such, as the rabbis teach us, Joseph, in naming his second child Efraim, wished to call attention to the fact that, despite Efraim being born in Egypt, he is still the descendant of the ancestors concerned with ashes — Abraham and Issac! Perhaps, for Jacob, this was the more important motivation.
On Friday nights, we bless our daughters by saying “May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah,” We pretty much know the reason. But why do we bless our sons with “May you be like Efraim and Menashe”? (Notice the order.) Why not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Wouldn’t that be more appropriate? Again, there are lots of reasons, but the most cogent one is because, despite being born and raised in Egypt — Pagan territory far away from the influences of Jacob and the family, the boys still “kept the faith” of their grandparents, and moved the Jewish People forward. That is why Jacob himself directed: “… By you will Israel bless saying: ‘May you be like Efraim and Menashe’” (Gen. 48:20).
As we conclude this first book of the Torah, Hazak, Hazak, v’Nitchazek! Strength in your learning! Strength to you! And may you be Strengthened.