VaYechi: Ultimate Blessing
Post-Parsha Point: VaYechi
The following is based on a concept I originally developed while attending Yeshiva, and have revisited and updated several times since. It formed the core of my speech at Aaron's bar mitzvah, seven years ago this coming Shabbos. For that and other reasons, it is my favorite personal d'var torah.
Parshas vayechi contains the blessing given by Jacob to Joseph's two children, Ephrayim and Menashe. After this blessing is recorded, the Torah enjoins that the Children of Israel are to bless future generations of sons that they should be just like Ephrayim and Menashe. Indeed, such is our custom to this very day.
The difficulty with this is very obvious: Why are Ephrayim and Menashe singled out as the role models for all Jewish sons? The Torah tells us almost nothing about their deeds; even during the story of Jacob's blessing, they are entirely passive. So why bless our sons to be like these almost anonymous individuals, instead of, say, blessing them to be like Joseph himself, or better yet, the Avos [forefathers] Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – just as we bless our daughters to be like the Imahos [foremothers] Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah?
There are a couple of answers to this question given by various commentators, but they all seem to me to focus on secondary, non-essential issues. For Ephrayim and Menashe to be singled out for such a singular honor - for them to be viewed as exemplars for all Jewish sons through the end of time - they must have exhibited some fundamental, groundbreaking trait that even their illustrious forefathers failed to achieve. Yet what could that possibly be?
Let's focus more carefully on the scene where Ephrayim and Menashe's grandfather Jacob blessed them. We are told that he swapped his right and left hands and thus gave the younger son Ephrayim priority over the older son Menashe. The commentator Klee Yakar points out that Jacob had precedence for this switch, as the practice of promoting the younger son over the older was already well-established in previous generations of the family.
But just look at the previous results! Jacob took over the birthright and firstborn blessing from his older brother Esav, and Esav became furious and wanted to murder him! Joseph was shown favoritism by his father, and his older brothers were so jealous that they contemplated killing him as well, and settled with “merely” selling him into slavery. No wonder, during Jacob's blessing here , we see Joseph attempt to step in, and with an uncharacteristic display of assertiveness towards his father, try to correct what he saw as Jacob's perpetuation of a tragic approach to parenting that had led to disaster in two previous generations.
But how did Ephrayim and Menashe themselves respond to this situation? As I noted above, they didn't! Ephrayim was given precedence over Menashe, but we see no jealous reaction by Menashe, nor does Ephrayim lord it over his older brother. Instead, both brothers accept Jacob’s decision peacefully.
Perhaps Jacob's very actions were a test as to whether the destructive past precedents of filial rivalry and envy had been - indeed could be - overcome. If so, Ephrayim and Menashe passed with flying colors. With their very passivity, they broke from the destructive pattern which had seemed so ingrained in the family, and outdid their illustrious fathers.
And this is why those two otherwise virtually unknown individuals were designated as the paradigms for our children to emulate. By overcoming the jealousy and arrogance that had caused so much pain and suffering for their ancestors, they uncovered what Jacob knew to be the key to withstanding all our future trials and sorrows - as individuals, and as a nation. And thus he concluded his blessing with the declaration and hope that Ephrayim and Menashe's example establish a new model for our people, one of achdus, of genuine brotherhood.
May this ultimate blessing be fulfilled in all our children!