“Ephraim” by Francesco Hayez, 1843.
“Ephraim” by Francesco Hayez, 1843.

A name that exhorts us not to forget, not to disengage

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Vayechi

Genesis 47:28–50:26


As the days of Jacob’s life draw to a close, so, too, does the Book of Genesis. For all of its emphasis on family and old age, there is just one instance of a grandparent interacting with grandchildren.

Joseph hears the dreaded news, “Your father is ill” (Genesis 48:1), and does what all children do if they are able. He rushes to his father’s side, bringing his young sons. Jacob (who is called Israel interchangeably until his death) merits literally and poignantly the blessing of Psalms 28:6: “May you see your children’s children — and may peace be upon Israel!”

But Jacob’s sight has dimmed and his faculties appear to be waning. As he leans out to bless the boys, he places his right hand, the symbol of power and preference, upon the younger son, Ephraim, and his left hand upon Manasseh, the older. He is in full control, though.

Joseph admonishes his aged father to bless his sons according to their birth order, but Jacob replies, with such an effective repetition, “I know, my son, I know,” and bestows the greater blessing on Ephraim. Once again, as in all of Genesis, the eldest son comes up short.

From this moment comes the first half of the sweet blessing given to male children as Shabbat comes in. Jacob states it explicitly: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” (Genesis 48:20).

Over the centuries, we included the priestly benediction: “May Adonai bless you and protect you. May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you. May Adonai bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26), and added a version for female children, invoking the matriarchs: “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

What was so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that raised them to this exalted place in our Shabbat ritual? Prevailing opinions suggest the boys were the first to maintain an Israelite identity in exile, and, as such, are role models for future generations. Others say they were brothers who actually lived in harmony, a corrective after the terrible fraternal strife that preceded them.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks takes another route, pointing out an easy-to-miss paragraph back in Parashat Miketz. After stockpiling food during Egypt’s seven years of plenty, and before the seven years of famine, Joseph became a father. And “Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget (nashani) completely my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘God has made me fertile (hifrani) in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:50-52).

In his commentaries, Rabbi Sacks suggests that Jacob’s elevation of Ephraim over Manasseh may have been at least partially due to their names. After the chaos and heartache of his early years, Joseph longed to forget his past and named Manasseh accordingly. By the time Ephraim is born, Joseph calls Egypt “the land of my affliction,” and is grateful for the gift of progeny in a country that is not his own, where his family is not.

When children come, the yearning for family and home can be overwhelming.

We learn something profound about exile in the names of Joseph’s children, says Rabbi Sacks. Newly arrived immigrants often wish to assimilate thoroughly, especially if they were forced out with pain and persecution.

My own family certainly sloughed off the Old World in the early 1900s, learning English and abandoning most of their Orthodox rituals. But later generations often want to reconnect with and remember the traditions and history that may have been lost along the way. My own sudden interest in Yiddish music (and my chosen profession and life’s path) suggests a very similar progression. And I know my story is not unique.

Ephraim and Manasseh have been paradigms of continuity and commitment to Judaism, especially in the diaspora, and particularly in times of uncertainty and fear. In our own day, as anti-Semitism is on the rise, and deeply troubling rhetoric is heard at the highest levels of government, we are confronted once again with the question of how openly we will embrace our religion and rituals, if at all.

Will we try to forget our hardships and our original religious home, or will we continue to create and be fertile, even when afflicted?

By raising up Ephraim, the Torah deftly reminds us that our preeminent goal should not be to forget and disengage, but to remember who we are and from where we come. We are blessed when we march forward with faith and hope, no matter how hard the journey, wherever the road may lead.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.