By: Ethan Katz
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayechi, we find our forefather Yaakov sick on his deathbed as his family comes to say their final goodbyes and receive his saintly and powerful blessings for one last time.
Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite son who had unfortunately been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, had long ago become a top viceroy to the king of Egypt. He gently approaches his father Yaakov with his two prized children, Yaakov’s grandchildren – Ephraim & Menashe – for what was to be their last time visiting their grandfather.
Yaakov gives a very peculiar and intriguing blessing to his grandchildren before passing away that we don’t often find by other people throughout the Torah:
כ:וַיְבָרְכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, לֵאמוֹר, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, ישמך
א–לקים כאפרים וכמנשה; וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת–אֶפְרַיִם, לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה.
And [Yaakov] blessed them that day, saying: ‘By this shall Israel bless, saying: ‘God make these as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’ And he set Ephraim before Manasseh
The question that rings in our ears though, is – Why? What was so great about Ephraim and Menashe? After all, they grew up in Egypt – not exactly the greatest Jewish environment at the time. Were they really such great Jewish role models that we would want to bless allour children to be like them one day? Forget identity crisis… They were basically the only Jews in Egypt besides for their immediate family for a good amount of their lives!
The famous 19th century Hungarian commentator on the Torah, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, better known as the K’sav Sofer, asks this question and gives us an awesome and insightful answer that can help us shed light onto this seemingly strange blessing we give over to our children every Friday night.
TheK’sav Sofer explains that Ephraim and Menashe each symbolized a powerful, yet different way to connect with G-d in life. Ephraim was the grandson who sat and learned Torah all day and night with his grandfather. He was involved in solely spiritual matters throughout the day and night, which as we all know is a very important way to connect with G-d in Judaism. Menashe, on the other hand, was always by Yosef’s side helping him run the administration and economy of Egypt. He was constantly involved with materialistic and financial matters almost all the time, and as such he knew how to relate to the people and he went out and became an active leader in Egypt.
Judaism is comprised of both of these elements, and we all try to be involved with both in our own unique ways and work to find a delicate balance between them.
This was exactly the blessing that Yaakov gave to his two grandchildren and requested all future generations to uphold and raise their children with regard to these blessings! We all deal with many different things on a daily basis, and as such, the overall attention span of a human being is surprisingly short in this modern day and age. One second we could be praying or learning Torah, involved in the spiritual pursuit of connecting to our Creator – and the next second we could be on our iPhones “snapchatting” or “Instagramming” the latest event in our lives. What can be more materialistic than an iPhone or a fancy shmancy piece of technology? It seems as though we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, either involved with spiritual pursuits or material ones, but never both simultaneously.
Our forefather Yaakov was teaching us something through this blessing that we oftentimes forget. Yaakov was teaching all the future generations that the true purpose of a Jew is multifaceted! Judaism is unlike other religions that demand that you completely avoidthe materialistic matters in life in the pursuit of attaining pure holiness, piety, and spirituality – rather, Judaism comprises and integrates both materialistic and spiritual elements of life and weaves them into one unit, forming an even stronger connection with G-d! We take the best of Ephraim and the best of Menashe and bless our children with one twofold blessing to maximize their dualistic natures!
Just take any item of food! Does it get any more materialistic than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?! Hashem gave us the opportunity to sanctify something as physical and materialistic as food with something as spiritual as a blessing – by saying Hashem’s name over that food, we infuse, or “super-charge” it with spirituality that gives our souls, as well as bodies, much needed nourishment. One of the many beauties of Judaism lies within the idea that even something as seemingly material as an iPhone or the latest gadget can be harnessed for spirituality – it’s all a matter of perspective.
As Jews we constantly live our lives with the mission of Tikkun Olam – making this world a better place. We can take this blessing of Yaakov – יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ–לֹקים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה – and give it over to our future generations more appropriately by taking the time to truly appreciate the brilliantly multifaceted nature of Judaism within our lives – the ability to take our environment around us at any given moment – and infuse it with the spiritual goal of connecting to G-d.
Ethan Katz is an advisor for Midwest NCSY and a senior at Yeshiva University.