‘The Half-Blood Prince’ Parashat Vayechi 5781

Jacob lies on his death bed and Joseph brings him his two sons to bless. Joseph lines them up in order of age: Menashe, the oldest, on Jacob’s right, and Ephraim, the youngest, on Jacob’s left. Jacob has other ideas. He crosses his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left hand on Menashe’s head. Joseph attempts to correct his father, informing him that the oldest grandson is already on his right-hand side. But Jacob is adamant [Bereishit 48:19]: “I know, my son, I know; he too will become a nation and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he and his children[‘s fame] will fill the nations”. Jacob then blesses his grandchildren [Bereishit 48:20]: “‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: G-d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’ Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh”. Most of the medieval commentators assert that the words “Thus he put Ephraim before Menashe” mean that in Jacob’s blessing, Ephraim’s name is mentioned before Menashe’s name. Our Sages in the Midrash assert that Ephraim’s precedence was far more extensive. The Tribe of Ephraim precedes the Tribe of Menashe in numerous instances[1] in the Torah. Perhaps the most blatant occurrence is in the offerings of the Princes of the Tribes during the consecration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), in which the Prince of the Tribe of Ephraim brought his offering on the seventh day while the Prince of the Tribe of Menashe brought his offering one day later, on the eight day.

Why was Jacob so insistent that he place his right hand over Ephraim’s head? What made Ephraim more worthy than Menashe? Was it something he did? Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, suggests that Ephraim was awarded precedence because of the deeds of his future descendants. According to Rashi, when Jacob tells Joseph, “He too will become a people and he too will be great”, he is referring to Gideon, a descendant of Menashe, who would one day judge Israel and rescue them from the Midianites. And when Jacob tells Joseph, “His younger brother will be greater than he and his children[‘s fame] will fill the nations”, he is referring to Joshua the son of Nun, a descendant of Ephraim, who stopped the sun in its tracks during a battle against Kings of the South. The entire world felt it and Joshua instantly attained global fame. Joshua was greater than Gideon, ergo Ephraim was greater than Menashe.

With all due respect, this seems like insufficient cause for Ephraim to jump the line. While Joshua was perhaps more famous and more pious than Gideon, Ephraim was “blessed” with descendants who were just as infamous was Joshua was famous. A case in point is Jeroboam the son of Nevat. While Jeroboam started out a confidant of King Solomon, he ultimately left Solomon’s government to start his own political party. He seceded from the union and created his own “Northern Kingdom of Israel”. Jeroboam outlawed offering of sacrifices at the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) and instead built two alternate centres of worship in the north. The result was widespread idolatry that lasted until the Northern Kingdom was destroyed more than two hundred years later. For this Ephraim was given precedence?

We can gain some traction via the commentary of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, known as the Netziv, who was the headmaster of the prestigious Volozhn Yeshiva in Lithuania in the nineteenth century. The Netziv directs our attention to the one lone instance in the Torah in which the Tribe of Menashe is given precedence over the Tribe of Ephraim: In the portion of Pinchas, Moshe is commanded to perform a census in preparation for divvying up the Land of Israel. A census was necessary as each tribe would receive a parcel of the land proportional to its population. In this particular census [Bemidbar 26:28-37], the Tribe of Menashe is counted before the Tribe of Ephraim. The Netziv explains that this happens because the Tribe of Ephraim takes precedence in spiritual affairs while the Tribe of Menashe takes precedence in secular affairs. As a result, the Tribe of Ephraim offers its sacrifices before the Tribe of Menashe, while in the mundane task of choosing a lot upon which to build a house, the Tribe of Menashe precedes the Tribe of Ephraim. The only thing that the Netziv neglects to explain is the reason why one of the two brothers was crowned the “Prince of the Holy” while the other became the “Prince of the Profane[2]”.

In order to understand the Netziv, we must dig a little deeper. I suggest that Menashe and Ephraim were not graded on who they were or who they would become, but, rather, on what they represented. To understand why, we must look at the source of their names[3]. Ephraim and Menashe were born soon after Joseph was crowned the Grand Vizier of Egypt, after he had despaired of seeing his father and his family ever again. The names of both of his sons are imbued with meaning [Bereishit 41:51-52]: “Joseph named the first-born Menashe, meaning, ‘G-d has made me forget completely (nashani) my hardship and my parental home.’ And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, ‘G-d has made me fertile (hifrani) in the land of my affliction’”. Prima facie, the names of Joseph’s children were testament to the beginning of a new life and a new identity. Joseph underwent a metamorphosis that transpired in two phases: First, he had to detach himself from his former Israeli identity and only then could he become fully integrated into Egyptian society. I suggest that there is more to their names than meet the eye.

One of the most basic concepts in Hassidic philosophy[4] is based on a phrase from the Book of Psalms [34:15] “Shun evil and do good”. While physicists teach that darkness is the absence of light, the Hassidic masters teach that the two metaphysical concepts of shunning evil and doing good are not at all equivalent. On a basic level, shunning evil means distancing ourselves from paths that lead to sin: staying away from the wrong people and places. Doing good means the active performance of mitzvot: visiting the sick, giving charity, and putting on tefillin. But on a more prosaic level, shunning evil is concerned with the physical while doing good is concerned with the spiritual. Shunning evil means preparing our corporeal world for G-dliness while doing good is the actual infusion of the Divine.

Menashe’s name – “G-d has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” – represents shunning evil. Accordingly, Menashe was given precedence in what the Netziv calls “Halichot olam” – “The ways of the world”. Menashe was responsible for making sure the world would be a fitting place for the Divine. He was responsible for settling the land and creating a just and righteous society. Ephraim’s name – “G-d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction” – represents doing good. Ephraim was responsible for bringing G-dliness into the world that Menashe had prepared and so he was given precedence in rituals like the offering of sacrifices. When Jacob told Joseph that Ephraim would be greater than Menashe, he was telling him that our ultimate goal should be doing good.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the last century, notes that Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menashe with the word “Be’cha” – “By (the singular) you shall Israel invoke blessings”, and not with the word “Ba’chem” – By (the plural) you”. Jacob’s message, teaches Rabbi Sorotzkin, is that the precedence of one Jew over another is only temporary. It is a temporary necessity, required to accomplish the goal of making “G-d and His Name one”. For the Jewish People to be truly blessed, we require unity. Jacob promises that if the Jewish People bind together, then G-d Himself will seal the knot.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] One Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah [97] brings no less than eight instances in which the Tribe of Ephraim is given precedence over the Tribe of Menashe.

[2] The Netziv implements his thesis to explain why Rashi mentions specifically Gideon and Joshua. Gideon attested that he was a man of poor religious status while Joshua was the prize student of Moshe.

[3] Certain elements of the hypothesis proposed in this lesson can be found in the commentary “Tzvi v’Chamid” written by Rabbi Yosef Friedlander, the Rabbi of the town of Liske, Hungary.

[4] It is difficult to attribute this concept to one Hassidic Rebbe. Indeed, according to Breslov Hassidism, the bone of contention between Hassidism and its opponents (Mitnagdim) is that Hassidim stress “Do good” while Mitnagdim stress “Shun evil”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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