Jacob, realizing he is about to die, gathers his 12 sons to receive a blessing.
But first, Jacob calls upon two of his grandchildren – Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe – to receive blessings. Why would Jacob place priority on blessing grandchildren over children?
As every grandparent knows) the joy of having grandchildren in some respects exceeds the joy of having children is. Why is this so?
Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships – whether a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. But only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single generation. Being a grandparent connects us to our unique spiritual soul which is rooted in infinity.
There is further significance to Jacob’s blessings.
One of the most beautiful customs in Jewish life is for parents to bless their children at the start of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Girls receive the blessing: “May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Boys, meanwhile, are blessed “to be like Ephraim and Menashe.”
What happened to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Why are Ephraim and Menashe instead the subjects of this important tradition?
Ephraim and Menashe were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight. Abraham’s two sons – Isaac and Ishmael – could not get along, and their disagreement forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. The next generation – Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esav – were so contentious that Esav repeatedly sought to kill Jacob and instructed his descendants to do the same. The next generation was contentious as well: Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery.
Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from this pattern. This explains why Jacob purposely switched his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim before the older Menashe. Jacob wished to emphasize the point that with these siblings, there is no rivalry. (see Genesis 48:13-14)
(In the world of nature, things can degenerate even further. A mother shark casts multiple fertilized eggs into her womb. Once the fetus-sharks grow teeth they tear one another apart, then eat their siblings – until the strongest shark remains alone in the womb.)
Indeed, there is no greater blessing than peace among siblings. The words of King David ring true: “How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together” – Hiney ma tov u’ma’nayim, shevet achim gam yachad (Psalms 133:1).
It is with this thought that parents bless their children today.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) offers another explanation of why Jewish boys throughout the ages have received the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe:
The first generations of Jews – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – raised their children primarily in the Land of Israel. The Holy Land is the most hospitable Jewish environment, where the Talmud reports that “even the air makes you wise.” In one sense, being Jewish in Israel is easy.
But due to famine, Jacob and his family moved to Egypt. The next generation would grow up surrounded by pagan immorality. The challenge was if Judaism would survive amidst all the distractions of diaspora life.
Throughout the ages, Jewish parents have prayed that their children withstand the temptations of exile, and keep a strong, proud Jewish identity.
In the end, how does a parent gauge success?
Far more than children, it is grandchildren who reveal the foundation and future direction of a family line. Hence the popular saying: “The issue is not whether you have Jewish children, it’s whether you have Jewish grandchildren.”
What was the outcome with Ephraim and Menashe? Despite great odds, they grew up in Egypt and maintained adherence to Torah ideals and practice which is why we bless our sons to be like them, expressing our hope for proud Jewish children – and grandchildren.