Va'Yechi: Blessing our Children

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December 17 2010


The death of Yaakov is not only the central storyline of this week’s Torah portion but also serves as a fitting conclusion to Sefer Bereishis. The first chapter of Jewish history was written by the Avos and Imahos and the transition to the next chapter of our glorious history – contained in the narratives of Sefer Shemos – begins when Yaakov passes from the biblical stage.

Yaakov, clearly aware of the crucial significance of the moment, gathers all of his children to his deathbed to give them one final blessing and charge for the future (ch. 49). Interestingly, before this climactic meeting Yaakov blesses Yosef’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and elevates them to equal status with their uncles. Moreover, Yaakov tells Yosef that the blessings of his sons will serve as a model for future generations, “Be’cha ye’varech Yisrael leimor, ye’simcha Elokim ke’Efraim u-chi’Menashe,” by you shall Israel bless, saying ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’ (48:20).

In fact, just as Yaakov prophesied, this verse has become an integral part of an increasingly popular custom practiced in many Jewish homes. First mentioned in the Ma’avar Yavok, a 17th century text, there are those who have the practice of blessing their children at the Friday night meal. While the actual blessing – comprised of the verses from the “Birkas Kohanim” (Bamidbar 6:24-26) – is the same for boys and girls, there is an introductory prayer which is gender specific.

The blessing for girls is introduced by a short prayer that the recipient of the blessing follows in the ways of the Imahos, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. The blessing for boys, however, mentions Ephraim and Menashe as ideal role models for Jewish boys.

While this practice thus confirms Yaakov’s prediction, it still begs the question: why are Yosef’s sons the standard for all future blessings? Wouldn’t it make more sense to parallel the blessing of our daughters and use the Avos as our point of reference?

There are a number of answers suggested to explain this choice, each of which provides important insight and lessons for parents and families.

One explanation is that, as previously mentioned, through Yaakov’s blessing Ephraim and Menashe achieved a position of eternal significance. They were no longer “just” the sons of Yosef, but equal members of the Shivtei Yisroel, the “Tribes of Israel.” We thus invoke them as inspiration for parents and thereby communicate that great spiritual accomplishment is similarly possible for all children. We must remember – and give our children the same confidence – that no level of success is beyond their reach. Just like Ephraim and Menashe, with enough effort and, of course, God’s blessing, anything is possible.

A second explanation for our choice is that Yosef’s sons were born and raised entirely in a foreign environment. To grow up in ancient Egypt, surrounded completely by pagan immorality, and still manage to attain a level of spiritual refinement is a triumph of significant proportion. Yaakov realized that Ephraim and Menashe were the ideal role models for future generations of Jews, most of which would similarly live in foreign environments. This too is an important lesson for us to internalize. Raising children in a society which often exposes them to values which are not consistent with our own values is no doubt challenging – but Ephraim and Menashe have taught us that it can be done.

And finally, an insightful Hassidic explanation focuses on the internal relationship between the brothers. After all, when it came time for the blessing, Yaakov famously shows preference for Ephraim over his older bother Menashe (48:13-19). One can only imagine the hurt felt by Menashe and would have expected this hurt to sow seeds of jealousy and damage the future relationship between the two brothers. And yet, there is no indication in the Torah or the Oral Tradition that this ever occurred. Every indication is that Ephraim and Menashe remained close and loving brothers despite the favoritism showed to Ephraim. And this, perhaps, is the hidden dimension of the blessing we give our children, as there is no greater fortune for a family than for there to be sibling love and loyalty.

Whether we have the custom of blessing our children on Friday night or not, and whether we have sons or daughters, the lessons to be learned from Efraim and Menashe are applicable to all families and to all children. May our prayers be answered, our blessings be realized, and may we all have the nachas we hope for from our children. 



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