D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayehi)

What’s So Special about Ephraim and Manesseh?

Parashat Vayechi brings the book of Genesis, as well as the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period, to a close. Jacob is coming to the end of his long life, and he offers closing remarks, sometime in the form of blessing, other times as rebuke, to his sons.

Interestingly, he blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as well: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (48:20)

And those are the words we invoke to our sons on erev Shabbat before offering them the Bircat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.  To our daughters we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” There seems to be quite a disparity in status here.  Do not Ephraim and Manasseh pale in comparison to the four Matriarchs?  Are we men getting shortchanged?

The teaching of Yalkut Yehudah (Yehudah Leib Ginsberg, an early 20th century Denver rabbi) provides an insight into this choice of Ephraim and Manasseh:

“Why specifically this blessing for the children? Because Ephraim and Manasseh grew and were educated in Egypt, without a Jewish environment.  And despite this they maintained their Jewishness and were not defiled among the Egyptians. And because Jacob knew that Israel was fated to be dispersed among the nations, he gave this blessing to the future generations who would be raised in the Diaspora.

“And therefore with the entrance of the Shabbat queen, which guards over the people of Israel, we bless the children, who will preserve the spirit of Israel.”

Ephraim and Manasseh faced a unique challenge.  They did not grow up in a Jewish environment, yet somehow retained a sense of who they were.  Perhaps their father Joseph, who also maintained his Jewish identity in Egypt, despite outward appearances, instilled that in them.

We face the same challenge:  to preserve the spirit of Israel, the Torah and traditions of Israel while we are confronted with the allure and temptations of the surrounding culture.  It is easy to get caught up and lost and forget who we are. So we want our children to be like Ephraim and Mannaseh, to maintain their Jewishness in the face of compelling centrifugal forces that can easily pull them away from Torah and Jewish life.  So we provide them with a Jewish home and Jewish education, and bless them on Shabbat. Ultimately we have to let them go out into the world, hopefully with the tools, knowledge and commitment to enable them to withstand the enticements that that world poses to them.

May all of our children be like Ephraim, Sarah, Rebecca, Manasseh, Leah and Rachel!


Rabbi Michael Swarttz is a parent of a Schechter alumnus, Nadav, the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Director of the Cotton Leadership Institute of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.

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