Commentary on Parashat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Vayehi speaks of blessings, of a grandfather blessing his grandsons, a father blessing his sons. Imagine the scene at the end of the Torah portion: Jacob, whose name has been changed to Israel, calls his 12 sons to his deathbed and blesses each one of them. But his real concern, according to our rabbis, is that his sons will abandon his God after he has died. In the Midrash, his sons respond to this unstated fear with words that have become familiar to us: “Shema Yisrael (Listen, [Dad–whose name is] Israel!): Hashem is our God, only Hashem.” Hearing this, the dying patriarch sighs quietly: “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto I’olam va’ed (Blessed is the glorious Name whose kingdom is forever and ever)!” (Midrash B’reishii Rabbah 98-4).
READ: The Shema
Each time we say the Shema, we are rehearsing this moment. We are the children acknowledging the God of our own father, and we are pledging our own loyalty to the tradition of ancestors.
This farewell scene cannot fail to move us. But it is also confusing. Jacob also has daughters, and the one named Dinah is no longer in the story. Is she not worthy of blessing?
The question of blessing our daughters emerges by way of omission. Jacob and the rest of his family have been reunited with Joseph after many years (Genesis 46). The beloved child Joseph, whom Jacob thought was dead, is not only still alive, but he is a father, with children of his own!
Now, facing death, Jacob says: “I never thought I’d see your face again, and look, God has enabled me to see the face of your children!” (48:8-12). Joseph brings his sons close to his father, with Manasseh, the elder, first. Jacob crosses his arms, putting his right hand on Ephraim’s head, and his left on Manasseh’s. Joseph intervenes, “Not that way, Father! This is my firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” But Jacob wants to put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Then Jacob blesses them both together with these words: “By you shall the people of Israel give their blessing, saying, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (48:18-20).
Why does Jacob bless his younger grandson first? It is hard to imagine this blessing without recalling the earlier moment when Jacob himself stole the blessing that his father Isaac meant for his older brother Esau. In blessing his grandsons, is Jacob repairing his own history, doing intentionally what Isaac did by accident? Is Jacob asserting through his act of blessing that birth order no longer determines one’s destiny — and that blessing is an act of will as opposed to an accident of chance?
The story raises other questions. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons has become over the centuries the blessing bestowed regularly upon boys; but what is it about Ephraim and Manasseh that merits our blessing our sons in their name? And what about our daughters?
We do not know much about these two young men. We meet them first when they are born (Genesis 41:51-53), and we encounter them again at this moment of blessing. They are children of an Egyptian mother and a father who is one of the most powerful men in Egypt. They are children born in the Diaspora, not only Egyptian but also Israelite-children living in two worlds.
So why do we bless our sons in their name? Could it be because, like so many Jews through our history, they grew up in the Diaspora and still remained Jews? Could it be because we imagine that they followed in their father’s footsteps — being part of Egyptian culture and politics — and yet still connected to their grandfather, part of-Israel’s community?
Or perhaps we invoke Ephraim and Manasseh because these are the first two siblings in the Bible who do not fight. With Ephraim and Manasseh, the family pathology that unfolds in the book of Genesis, in which siblings struggle with each other, finally comes to an end. They teach us that we do not have to fight over blessings: there are enough of them to go around.
In the Middle Ages, the customary blessing of children took place before Kol Nidrei (erev Yom Kippur) — the time when we are most aware of our mortality — a time reminiscent of Jacob’s deathbed blessings. In recent centuries, the tradition expanded to include blessing the children every Shabbat evening and on the evening of holidays. Whereas we continue to bless sons by reference to Ephraim and Manasseh (“May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh”), the tradition for our daughters is different; we bless them with these words: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”
A Different Blessing
Why are the blessings so different? Rabbi Richard Levy suggests the following contemporary reason for interpreting the difference:
“Just as Ephraim and Manasseh received their merit not through any acts of their own but only because they were alive and were descendants of Jacob (as are we all), so Jewish boys need not feel that their parents’ love is dependent on their accomplishments; they are beloved just because they are children. For Jewish girls, however, who might be inclined by society’s prejudices to think that because they are girls they need not set their sights very high, the blessing holds them up to the highest models: May God make you like the greatest women the Torah knows — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah” (“Parashat Vayehi,” in Learn Torah With…, 1996, Vol. 2, No. 12).
As our community mores continue to evolve, one might claim that we now expect both our daughters and our sons to set their sights high. We also hope to create an environment where both daughters and sons feel valued simply because they are alive — and are our children. So perhaps there is yet another way to interpret these blessings, one that accounts for changes we value in our contemporary world.
Maybe we can understand Jacob’s blessing of his grandchildren this way: “Ephraim, may God help you become the best that Ephraim can be; Manasseh, may God help you become the best that Manasseh can be!” Maybe we should fill in the names of our own children as we bless them. So I would say to my daughter: “Elana, may you be fully Elana!” And to my son I would say: “Joshua, may you be fully Joshua!” Or, in the words of the modern Jewish poet Marcia Falk: “Be who you are … and may you be blessed in all that you are” (The Book of Blessings, 1996).
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Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.