Prayer life changes
The forest beyond the trees

This week's portion: the blessings of Ephraim and Menashe

There's a custom of blessing our children on Friday nights as we usher in Shabbat. I didn't grow up with this custom, but I've witnessed it many times, and have once or twice had the opportunity to participate in it myself.

The blessing has two parts. Traditionally, girls are blessed that they be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; boys are blessed that they be like Ephraim and Menashe, the sons of Joseph who were born to him before his father and brothers moved to Egypt. Then we say the priestly blessing ("May God bless you and keep you...") to the children regardless of gender.

The blessing for boys, found at The blessing for girls can also be found there.

It's always baffled me a little bit that we bless our daughters to be like the matriarchs, but we don't bless our sons to be like the patriarchs. Why are we blessing our sons that they turn out like the two elder sons of Joseph, rather than blessing them to be like Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov themselves?

This week's Torah portion, Vayechi, contains the iconic moment when Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), on his deathbed, blesses Ephraim and Menashe. He places his hands on the boys' heads (putting his right hand on the younger boy's head, and his left hand on the older boy's head, which was apparently a reversal of tradition -- Genesis is full of stories of inversion wherein the younger child receives the blessing due to the older one) and he says the following words to Joseph:

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 lads.
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."

It's an intriguing blessing. For one thing, it's given to Joseph, not to the boys directly. It invokes Abraham and Isaac twice, and invokes both God and angelic presence. And it suggests that it is through these two grandsons that Jacob's name will be recalled. The Torah text adds, "So he blessed them that day, saying, 'By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.'" Clearly this verse is the origin of the custom of blessing our sons in this way. But why do we bless our boys to be like these two, instead of like any of the other fine figures in Torah?

I did a bit of digging, and here's my favorite among the answers that I found: Ephraim and Menashe were the first two brothers in our ancestral story who didn't fight. Avraham's two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, were cast by their parents as adversaries (and their rivalry remains, in some ways, at the heart of conflict between Jews and Muslims today.) Jacob and Esau likewise fought; after Jacob tricked Esau out of his blessing, Jacob fled for his life. Though they reconciled eventually, Jacob never trusted his brother's good will and their relationship remained strained. And Jacob's sons bitterly resented their youngest brother Joseph, even going so far as to sell him into slavery.

But Ephraim and Menashe do not fight. That's why we bless our sons to walk in their footsteps. (I've seen this interpretation credited to Rabbi Mordechai Elon, a contemporary Israeli rabbi.) I like the idea that we refer to Ephraim and Menashe in this moment of blessing because theirs was the first generation in our ancestral family tree which wasn't marred by sibling rivalry. The acrimony between the patriarchs and their brothers does ensure that their stories from Torah are approachable and recognizable to us...but is not exactly what I'd hope for my son to emulate in his own life.

The other interpretation which seems fairly popular notes that that Ephraim and Menashe grew up in Egypt. Their mother, Asenath, was Egyptian (as I noted in the Torah poem I wrote for this parsha a few years ago.) In the Biblical imagination, Egypt is the prototypical Diaspora location. But despite their Diaspora childhood and education, Ephraim and Menashe held fast to their minority religious identity, and therefore we bless our sons to be like them in hopes that they too will cling to their Jewishness despite the many pressures of Diaspora life. (This one is variously attributed to R' Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and to the Eved haMelech, R' Ovadya Hadia.)

I'd like to recast that second interpretation a little bit. Some retellings of this teaching seem to focus on the importance of clinging to our Jewish heritage despite the siren song of Christian culture. (Some have a tone which I don't much care for, like this explanation from Chabad rabbi R' Shmuel Kogan, who writes, "to maintain a high level of spirituality and character amongst a society that is devoid of morals and ethics is the real test.") But I don't favor that way of relating to other traditions. I'd rather celebrate the idea that we bless our sons to be like these two Diaspora figures because, as Diaspora Jews, they had the unique opportunity to grow up as my son will grow up: as a citizen of the world, who inevitably encounters people of other traditions and chooses to relate to them with respect.

After blessing these two grandsons, Jacob blesses his twelve sons -- many with fairly harsh recriminations. He reminds Joseph to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, back in the land of Canaan (the Cave of the Patriarchs, now in Hebron; I visited it back in 2008.) And then he dies, and Joseph grieves, and he takes his father to be buried in the land of Canaan. While he's gone, his brothers panic, thinking, 'what if when he returns he takes revenge on us for our previous misdeeds?' But Joseph's response to their concern is quite wonderful. He says, don't worry; I'm not God, it's not my job to seek vengeance; and besides, "although you intended me harm, God intended it for good." Maybe this is why he was able to raise his sons without acrimony toward each other: because he had learned how to let go of his own familial resentments, and how to discern the thread of divine plan in the many ups and downs of his personal story.

What do we need to let go of in order to rear our children without negative family narratives? What blessing can we offer which will convey to them our desires for who we hope they will grow up to be?