Winter break is a wonderful thing – two whole weeks of family fun and togetherness! We eat together, we play games together, we watch programs together, and we spend so much quality time together… It is an incredible opportunity for quality time as a family, unfettered by school, work, regularly scheduled programs or commitments. But if we are honest, how many of us with young children have at least had the thought, if we haven’t actually voiced it, that we cannot wait for everyone to be back at work or in school. The main complaint? The bickering and the fighting. How much more of this can I take? It’s too much togetherness! Whether the conflict arises from simple squabbles or from more important causes, it is stressful to the whole family. Although science would tell us that this is normal and sometimes, even healthy, one cannot help but pray for a day when they will just get along!
Every Friday night, when my husband places his hands on my sons’ heads, he blesses them, as is tradition: “May Hashem make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Bereishit, 48:20). Why like Ephraim and Menashe? We bless our daughters to be like the matriarchs Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Why not bless our sons to be like the patriarchs? Or, at the very least, why not like Joseph who was on a higher moral and religious plane than most? There were many illustrious figures in the Torah who could have been chosen for this blessing yet, we bless them to be as the Joseph’s two eldest sons. One of the answers to this question may be found in this week’s parasha.
On his deathbed, Jacob gives these two grandsons equal status to his sons. When the land of Israel was divided among the Joseph’s brothers, his sons Ephraim and Menashe received their own portion of land and flags as tribes of Israel.
Two explanations are generally brought forth to answer this question. First, Ephraim and Menashe are the first set of brothers in the Torah who get along. Up to now, we have seen Cayin and Abel, Yitzchak and Ishmael, Yacov and Esav, and Joseph and his brothers. Ephraim and Menashe were the first brothers in our ancestral history who did not fight.
A second explanation, attributed, Rav Ovadya Hadia, points out that Ephraim and Menashe were raised by their mother in Egypt and not in their ancestral home. Their home was regularly frequented by officers and advisers of Egypt such that their childhood and education were almost entirely Egyptian. Nonetheless, they held fast to their religious identity. They resisted outside influences and stayed true to their father’s teachings. Ephraim and Menashe were strong, confident and secure in who they were and in their mission in life. So much so that when Jacob switched the blessing, giving the Bechora, the blessing of the first born, to the younger brother, Ephraim, there is no jealousy between the siblings (Bereishit 48:13-14).
To be a great person among great people is a challenge, but to maintain the strength of character to resist outside influences when surrounded by the environmental challenges of peers and society is another thing entirely. Ephraim and Menashe had a clear understanding of who they were and where they came from which guided them throughout the challenges in their lives.
The Midrash explains that Ephraim and Menashe represent the two qualities of Joseph. Menashe, according to Rashi, was worldly, a talented linguist and worked for the viceroy of Egypt. He represents secular wisdom. Ephraim was a Torah scholar, devoted to the ways of his ancestors. “Both branches of wisdom much compliment each other, secular wisdom and international expertise on the one hand and the Divine Torah with its ethical and moral direction on the other, and they must even be combined together in the educational and personality makeup of each Jew”, writes Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin.
The relationship between siblings has the potential to be among the most profound connections a person can make. It can definitely be challenging, but, as David Hamelech said: “How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together” – Hiney ma tov u’ma’nayim, shevet achim gam yachad (Psalms 133:1). To which Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would add “and how rare!”. As sefer Bereishit comes to a close, he explains, we see that relationships are hard, they are rarely straightforward and they take work but that in the end, family is a “vehicle of blessing”.
And so, every Friday night, we bless our children to have a clear knowledge of who they are, to be confident, secure and committed to their heritage and to overcome the challenges in life with warmth and friendship as did Ephraim and Menashe.
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School