Parshat Vayechi: Genesis 47:28-50:26; I Kings 2:1-12.
Rabbi Amy Bigman
As I write this, we have just completed the holiday of Chanukah. Our congregation has held its annual Chanukah/Shabbat dinner and our social hall was overflowing with children, parents, grandparents and members of our congregational family and community.
We began, as always, with the blessing of the children. To listen to so many parents bless their children with the words of our tradition was beautiful and heart-warming.
The idea for blessing children comes from the blessings that Jacob offered to two of his grandsons and sons (in that order) in this week’s portion. After 17 years of living in Egypt, Jacob is on his deathbed. He blesses his son Joseph through the blessing of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim: “And he blessed Joseph, saying: ‘The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all harm, bless the boys. In them, may my name be recalled and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the Earth.’” [Genesis 48:15-16]
Joseph does not receive a direct blessing from Jacob as do his brothers; through his sons, Joseph is blessed by his father. The portion continues: “So he (Jacob) blessed them that day, saying: ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying, God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” [Genesis 48:20] To this day, we use these words to bless our sons.
You may wonder why we offer blessings in the names of Ephraim and Manasseh, two biblical figures about whom we know next to nothing. You would be in good company. Throughout the ages, our scholars have asked this same question.
Two main reasons are offered by our commentators. The first is that Ephraim and Manasseh were the first siblings who did not fight with each other. There are many instances of sibling rivalry found in the Book of Genesis, but the rabbis say that these two brothers did not fight. (Since we do not know anything about them, other than their births, which are noted in Genesis 41 and the blessing offered in this text, I find this reason difficult to understand.) The other reason that is given is that while they were born in Egypt, to Joseph and his Egyptian wife, they remained faithful to their father’s Israelite faith. Although they lived in the diaspora, they remained, in modern terminology, faithful Jews.
We know well the challenges of living as Jews in a non-Jewish world. Especially at this time of year, it can be difficult to remain faithful to our own traditions; but as Manasseh and Ephraim are credited as having done, we, too, must remain true to ourselves and our heritage.
Amy B. Bigman is rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing.