Making Our Blessings Count
On Shabbat evening, after the graceful candles are lit and the family is gathered around the table, it’s customary for parents to bless their children.
This blessing concludes with the Priestly blessings from Leviticus:
May God bless you and guard you
May the light of God shine upon you, and may God be gracious to you
May the presence of God be with you and give you peace
Before the Priestly blessing, for girls it’s common to say,
“May God help you be like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”
For boys, we bless them to be like Ephraim and Menashe
יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה
It’s understandable that we bless our daughters to have the leadership and spiritual devotion of our fabled matriarchs, but why are the role models for our boys Ephraim and Menashe? What’s their greatness?
Throughout the Book of Genesis, there’s contention among siblings:
Cain is jealous of Abel and kills him.
Abraham and Lot, who are uncle and nephew but like brothers, can’t live near one another.
Ishmael is expelled from Isaac’s presence when Isaac was two.
Jacob and Esau’s enmity starts in the womb and persists throughout adulthood.
Rachel and Leah are married to the same man, each claiming the other stole her husband.
Joseph and his brothers have such sibling rivalry that Leah’s sons plot to kill him.
The only siblings that we see without issues are Menashe and Ephraim. Ephraim and Manasseh actually have reason for resentment (Genesis 48), but we see no misbehavior from them:
13 And Joseph took them both, Menashe at Jacob’s right, and Ephraim at his left, and he brought them to him.
14 But Israel stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger, and his left hand he placed on Menashe’s head. He guided his hands deliberately, for Menashe was the firstborn.
17 And Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and it displeased him. So he held up his father’s hand to remove it from upon Ephraim’s head to place it on Menashe’s head.
18 And Joseph said to his father, “Not so, Father, for this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”
19 But his father refused, and he said, “I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he, and his children’s fame will fill the nations.”
Jacob was schooled in favoritism so he deliberately placed his right hand on Ephraim who was to his left, for he foresaw that he would have a greater future. If you’re Menashe, the firstborn, you might hold a deep resentment.
Nonetheless, we don’t find any resentment of Menashe to Ephraim, neither when they were alive nor from their tribal descendants.
Where did Joseph’s sons learn this behavior? From their father. Joseph had seen the dysfunction and ruined dynamics that parental favoritism caused. Because of it he was exiled from his family for 22 years after barely avoiding being murdered. Joseph was set upon forgiveness and teaching forbearance to his children.
When Joseph reveals himself to his siblings in Genesis Chapter 45, he says:
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me,” and they drew closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
5 But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you.
6 Already two years of famine have passed in the midst of the land, and for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest.
7 And God sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land, and to preserve life, for you to be a great surviving group.
8 And so it is not you who sent me here, but God, and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt.
Joseph had learned first-hand what jealousy causes and he swore to eliminate it.
Joseph stops the favoritism and pettiness. He models forgiveness to his brothers and his children learned from their father’s actions.
Therefore, it’s the amicable siblings, Ephraim and Menashe whom we chose as the models to bless our sons.
Yet, I believe there’s another reason we utilize Menashe and Ephraim as the paradigm for the way we bless our children.
As we mention previously, Jacob was schooled in favoritism, so when he blesses his children upon his deathbed, he clearly shows favorites. He rebukes Reuben, Shimon and Levi, the sons of the maidservants receive minor commendations, and Judah and Joseph get long intricate blessings.
Five generations later, when Moses blesses the Children of Israel, he copies Jacob’s style and the big winners are Levi, Joseph and Judah. All of the tribes receive minor validation.
And what was the benefit from these meticulously calculated blessings?
Joseph’s descendants were conquered and exiled by the Assyrians. Some families escaped south to Judah, but they ending up losing their identity. Is that the mark of a blessing?
And what of Judah, from whom we are descended? Did his blessings pay off? Exile, inquisition, slavery, genocide. In 1945, would one have said those blessings were effective?
Would one say so at any time before 1948?
Genesis has many great, epic family stories and lesson, but many times they’re more of what we shouldn’t do, than do.
There might be one exception though. The only two people to receive identically worded blessings were Menashe and Ephraim. Jacob blessed them as one (even though he switched his hands), Chapter 48:
15 And he blessed them saying, “God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who has sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day,
16 may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they teem multitudinously in the midst of the land.”
Perhaps Jacob’s and Moses’s mismatched blessings backfired. How would the tribes that weren’t greatly blessed feel? Blessing them in that way is composing a self-fulfilling prophecy for inadequacy. It’s an act causing resentment when it should be a time of great potential.
Menashe and Ephraim, on the other hand, were blessed together with the same words, and as we said before, we never see jealousy or animosity among these two.
Therefore, “With you Israel will bless their children, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh’” for they are our paradigms of equality, forbearance and brotherly love. We use their blessings as models, not favoring one child more than the other, hoping our children too will have respect and affection for one another like Menashe and Ephraim.
May we follow Joseph’s ways, modeling equal love to all our children, and receive the blessing of true family harmony.
Happy 2019 to all.