When Yaakov heard that his beloved son Yosef was alive and well in Egypt, he gathered his family and moved there. Based on Yosef’s advice, Yaakov and his family lived in Goshen, far from the Egyptian settlements, so that they would remain uninfluenced by the Egyptian culture. Ephraim, Yosef’s younger son, who learned Torah with his grandfather Yaakov, one day went to the palace to tell his father that Yaakov was not feeling well.
Upon hearing that his father was ill, Yosef took his two sons Menashe and Ephraim to Yaakov for a blessing. Yaakov told Yosef that these two children’s status would be that of Reuven and Shimon and that the boys would be counted as two of the twelve tribes in their father’s place. Yaakov then told Yosef to present the boys to him so that he could bless them.
Yosef assumed that his older son, Menashe, would receive the premier blessing from Yaakov’s right, stronger hand, and that Ephraim, the younger son, would receive the lesser blessing from Yaakov’s left hand. Hence, Yosef accordingly presented them before their grandfather so that they would each be opposite the correct hand. Much to Yosef’s surprise, Yaakov, in blessing the lads, crossed his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim, and his left hand on Menashe. When Yosef saw what his father had done, he tried to move Yaakov’s hands to correct him, saying, “No father, Menashe is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head!” Yaakov explained to Yosef that he was aware of that but that Ephraim would be greater than Menashe, therefore the stronger blessing was appropriate for him.
Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef’s sons, and the blessing that to this day a Jewish father gives his children on Friday night, is, “Hashem should make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” They are to be the example of what every parent should want his child to grow up to be. A father similarly blesses his daughters that they should be like the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah.
ספר בראשית פרק מח
(כ) וַיְבָרֲכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמוֹר בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה:
- So he blessed them on that day, saying, “By you shall Israel bless saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh’, ” — placing Ephraim before Manasseh:
What did Yaakov find so special about Ephraim and Menashe such that he singled them out as the paradigm of what Jewish children should be, even over his own sons?
The commentaries point to a few special qualities that they possessed.
When Yaakov blessed the boys and placed Ephraim before his older brother Menashe, Menashe did not react. He was neither upset nor jealous of his younger brother completely accepting that Ephraim would become greater than he. This reflects positively on Ephraim also, who did not act haughty or look down on his brother even though he was superior. Each had the assurance and self- confidence not to be threatened by the other. Each had respect for who his brother was, and each was able to acknowledge his unique attributes. How wonderful it would be if all brothers could be this way!
Ephraim and Menashe were special in another way. They were Yaakov’s grandchildren, not his sons, and yet, they were as great as Yaakov’s own sons. Yaakov told Yosef that they would be like Reuven and Shimon, his very own children. Yaakov felt that both Ephraim and Menashe were worthy of being two of the twelve holy tribes of Israel, as great as their father Yosef and on par with their uncles. What a great accomplishment! This is also why Ephraim and Menashe serve as the paradigm of what every parent should want: that their children should be as great as their parents.
Finally, what made Ephraim and Menashe the example of what every parent should want for their children is that they were born and raised in Egypt, an environment hostile to holiness. They also grew up in the royal palace, something that itself could have corrupted them. But Yosef raised them so perfectly that they were uninfluenced by both the Egyptian culture or that they grew up in the palace. Their home was equal to that of Yaakov in that it cultivated and nurtured them to be holy people equal to their uncles. What a feat! If only we could do that.
These ideas are what we mean when we bless our children, “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe!”
Yaakov, right before his demise, called his sons together to bless each individually. Yaakov saw in his twelve sons the complete array of qualities necessary for the Jewish nation. Each son was special in his own way and possessed an essential characteristic that complemented the unique qualities of his eleven brothers.
Generally, a blessing’s power is to increase greatly the kernel of something that is already there. A blessing cannot create something from nothing; its power is to create abundance from something preexisting. Otherwise, it will accomplish nothing.
Harav Yeruchem Levovitz, of blessed memory, mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, develops this point from the story of Yaakov blessing his grandsons. We see that there is a correct process a blessing must follow to be effective. The Tzadik doesn’t have a box full of blessings that he doles out to those who request one. For the blessing to be effective, the person must be a worthy candidate. When Yosef thought that his father had made a mistake, he felt that Yaakov should repeat the blessing with his hands correctly placed on the boys, because the blessing would not work with an incorrect configuration. Menashe is the older son and he must have the right hand for his blessing to work. When Yaakov assured him that he had done it deliberately, and that, in this particular case, Ephraim gets the right hand even though he is younger, Yosef deferred to his father’s superior insight.
The blessing that Yaakov gave to his twelve sons would not only seek to increase the power of their unique characteristics, it would also define each brother and his role in the Jewish nation such that it could not be exchanged or altered. It would clearly delineate the role that each tribe would play in the workings of the nation.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, of blessed memory, asks a very important question: If Yaakov intended to give each of his sons a unique and specially tailored blessing, why did he call them all together? Why not call each one separately into his room and give him his own specific blessing?
He answers that Yaakov wanted to teach them a very important lesson. Even though each brother had his unique purpose in life, for example, royalty to Yehuda, service in the holy temple for Levi, and Torah learning for Yissachar, his role wasn’t a purpose in itself; it was an integral part of the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is essential that each do his part faithfully and not mix into someone else’s, since the proper functioning of the whole depends on each component contributing his part.
He cites an example of when, during the Chanukah story, one of the tribes crossed the line into the territory of a different tribe. The Chashmonaim, who were Kohanim from the tribe of Levi, ousted the Greeks. After their victory, instead of returning the kingdom to the tribe of Yehuda, they held on to it. Yaakov’s blessing to Yehuda that the scepter of kingship would not leave his family was not a wish. It was establishing a reality. Royalty in the Jewish nation is Yehuda’s exclusive domain. Their severe punishment was that the entire Chashmonaim family was ultimately wiped out.
There is another lesson here. Did you ever experience someone singing the praises of someone you know, and suddenly you felt yourself shrinking and feeling inadequate? For some reason, when we hear someone else being praised we begin to think that we are not worthy of praise. The other person’s attributes are so great, and I am nothing. One thing, though, has nothing to do with the other. Just because he has wonderful qualities does not preclude me from also having wonderful qualities, though they may be different. By calling together his 12 sons, Yaakov was teaching them that each person has unique, praiseworthy qualities, but that doesn’t mean that one should feel inadequate while listening to them. His good qualities do not diminish mine in any way.
Yaakov’s 12 sons comprised the twelve tribes of Israel in kernel form. Individuals with singular qualities, they combined to form the complete nation of Israel. The same concept is true today with every one of us. We are each individuals with exceptional qualities shared by no one else, and our role as a Jew in this world is to be an essential constituent of the Jewish nation as a whole.
There is a beautiful metaphor that brings out this point. The word ישראל , the name of the Jewish nation, can be written as an acronym for:
יש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה
This means: “There are 600,000 letters in a Sefer Torah.” The number 600,000 is the approximate number of men who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. That general number is used to refer to the entire Jewish nation with all its components. The concept is that each Jew is like a letter in a Sefer Torah, and if even one letter is missing, the Sefer Torah is פסול – unfit for use. Each letter needs each other letter in its proper place doing its job for the whole Sefer Torah to be kosher. It’s all or nothing.
Similarly, every Jew is an essential part of the nation with a special mission to accomplish. Our nation cannot reach its goal unless each component is in its proper place doing its job.
A question remains on the analogy to the Sefer Torah: The number 600,000, excludes the tribe of Levi who were counted separately, and whose count was 22,000. What role do they play?
The Levites represent the Torah scroll’s parchment which connects the letters to each other and forms them into a whole. It also gives each letter its individuality and definition, providing the white background for the black letters to be seen clearly.
Similarly, the tribe of Levi, comprising the Kohanim and the Levites, whose job it is to teach the Torah and Mitzvot to the Jewish people, serve as the parchment that connects us to each other. The Rabbis and teachers bring their congregants together to learn and pray, connecting them together around the Torah. By teaching us the Torah and the skills necessary to perform the Mitzvot properly, our rabbis and teachers provide us with the construction material needed to build each of us into the Jewish person we were created to be.
Think of it as an orchestra. Each musician practices his part at home, and then joins the rest of the musicians at the symphony hall to perform the symphony with the other musicians who all did the same. If only one of the musicians cannot play his piece properly, he will ruin it for everybody. Similarly, each of us has singular tune to play to Hashem. This is our unique mission in life, and this tune has never been played to Hashem before and never will be played to Him again. I am the only one who can play it. Because my tune is also one instrument in a symphony that is being played to Hashem by the entire Jewish nation, I need to practice it and seek to perfect it. If I fail to play my part, the symphony, and the piece, will be imperfect.
Shimon and Levi, Leah’s sons numbers two and number three, were a dynamic duo. They together masterminded and executed the plan to kill the city of Shchem, the prince of which had which violated their sister Dina, and they instigated the sale of their brother Yosef which is why Yosef imprisoned Shimon before sending the rest of the brothers back to Yaakov. He wanted to make sure that Shimon and Levi didn’t put their heads together to deal with Egypt’s troublesome and cruel official.
Yaakov was also unhappy with their partnership, and in his blessing, he dispersed them.
ספר בראשית פרק מט
אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל:(7)
I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel:
What is the meaning of this separation and dispersion? Rashi explains.
רש”י על בראשית פרק מט פסוק ז
אין לך עניים סופרים ומלמדי תינוקות אלא משמעון כדי שיהיו נפוצים.
The poor, scribes, and teachers of young children will all come from the tribe of Shimon. Since these professions usually require a person to travel from place to place to earn their living, this will keep them separate.
ושבטו של לוי עשאו מחזר על הגרנות לתרומות ולמעשרות נתן לו תפוצתו דרך כבוד:
And as for the tribe of Levi, he will have to travel around to threshing floors to receive his livelihood from the presents that the people will give him from their crops. Since the Kohains and Levites would work in the holy Temple and not own any land, the people would have to support their holy work through gifts from their crops.
Once again Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky ask an incisive question:
Yaakov was displeased with Shimon and Levy’s partnership because of the destructive way in which they used it. Their anger brought them to do detestable things. Why, then, would Yaakov put these two difficult sons in charge of everything sacred to the Jewish people? Teaching Torah to the children provides the foundation of the next generation! The scribes are the ones who write the holy articles, the sefer Torahs, tefillin and mezuzot, which, to be kosher, must conform to very rigorous standards of holiness. And he set the tribe of Levi to be in charge of all holy temple service as the role models and Torah leaders of the Jewish people!? Couldn’t he find anybody better?
Rabbi Kamenetsky answers with a penetrating insight and a profound lesson for all of us. While Yaakov was displeased with how Shimon and Levy dealt with the city of Shchem, he nevertheless was able to see through them to identify a very special quality that these boys had over their brothers. When their sister Dina was defiled and disgraced by Shchem, they could not tolerate the injustice of it, and they had to act to avenge her honor . They simply could not do nothing, as their brothers did, and allow Shchem to get away with it. They had actually risked their lives when they killed Shchem’s inhabitants, but the sense of justice and what was right burned so deeply within them that they had to act.
This powerful quality, when appropriately applied to matters of holiness, gives its owners the strength and perseverance to overcome any obstacle. These are exactly the people whom we need to teach our children and write our Sefer Torahs, for, even under the most difficult conditions, and because of their deep commitment to what is right, they will always remain faithful to their holy mission and properly execute it.
If only we as parents had Yaakov’s penetrating insight and ability to see through his children’s wrongful act to find the great positive quality that lay hidden behind the mistake and then to encourage and guide them to cultivate that great quality for good purposes.
We see how Yaakov was able to raise all 12 of his sons to be righteous. It was by always looking through the acts to find the good that lay underneath, and by then guiding them to use the positive quality for the good.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski was the son of the great Chassidic Rebbe of Chernoble. He was known to be a chess master at a very young age. One Rosh Hashana, the Twerski family hosted a Chassidic Rebbe from a different city for the holiday. The guest had heard that the son of his host was a chess genius and challenged him to a game. The boy’s father heard that his son played chess on Rosh Hashana and called him into his office for a meeting.
“You played chess on Rosh Hashana?” he asked.
“Yes.” Came the response. Silence. Then,
“But did you beat him?”
“Yes.” Came the response
“Good! Now you can go. “
After telling this story, Rabbi Twerski reported, that although he felt embarrassed that he had played chess on Rosh Hashana, he also felt like a million dollars that his father had the confidence in him that he would beat his competitor at the game.
This is a perfect example of how his father saw past the mistake of his son to uncover his strength, and to complement him for it in the midst of the reprimand.
What a great lesson for parents.