On that day he blessed them saying: Using you (as a paradigm) will the nation of Israel bless (its sons) saying ‘May G-D make you like Ephraim and Manasseh’ And he placed Ephraim before Manasseh (Gen. 48:20).
This most familiar of texts gives rise to a tricky question: Why does Jacob prefer Ephraim to Manasseh? This is not of the same hue as the other younger-before-older scenarios in the Book of Genesis. Shet, Shem, Isaac and Jacob himself are all blessed in the face of older siblings who are unrighteous. Nowhere either in Chumash or in Midrash is there any suggestion that Manasseh, Joseph’s firstborn, is anything other than upright. Nor is there any real indication that Ephraim is significantly more righteous. Why then does Jacob make a whole play of crossing his arms to place his right hand on the younger Ephraim at the risk of hurting, even alienating, the older Manasseh?
Some answers are suggested by our commentators. One is that Ephraim made himself small and humble (Midrash Rabba Gen. 86:6). We know, also by Midrashic tradition, that Manasseh was Joseph’s right-hand-man in governing Egypt. The fact that we are informed that Manasseh embarked upon a career in public affairs while we are not told any such thing of Ephraim suggests that the latter was a young man very much in the mould of his grandfather as a youth, “dwelling in tents”, pursuing the quiet, studious path of learning.
Significantly it is Manasseh who (again according to Midrashic tradition) chases after the brothers and accuses them of stealing the viceroy’s divining cup (Gen. 44:4-6). Of course he is only following his father’s instructions – yet it is possible the distress his words caused the brothers created a miniscule scar on Manasseh’s soul that consigned him to second-place behind Ephraim. (Interestingly in a different context our Sages say that the second-hand purveyor of lashon ha-ra, bad talk, is more negatively affected by it than its originator.)
A further reason cited is that Jacob saw by prophecy that the most famous descendants of the two brothers would be Joshua (from Ephraim) and Gideon (from Manasseh). Since Joshua was the greater of the two, his ancestor Ephraim is given precedence (Midrash Tanchuma).
Yet another possible motivation for Jacob’s action may have been that he was testing Manasseh. Would he be jealous of his younger brother in the same way that Ishmael, Esau and even the sons of Leah had been? If a test it was, Manasseh passes it with distinction. His generation at last will see perfect harmony between brothers.
Perhaps too an element of mida k’neged mida (measure-for-measure) comes into play. After all, hadn’t Joseph tested his brothers to see if they would be jealous of Binyamin by giving the latter extra gifts? (Gen.45:22). Now Joseph has to acquiesce to his father apparently showing similar favouritism to Joseph’s younger son.
Finally may we suggest an explanation which goes to the heart of the two names and connects fascinatingly with the opening verse of the Sidra.
We know that names are highly significant in presaging a person’s destiny (k’shmo ken hu). Parents are accorded ruakh ha-kodesh, Divine inspiration, when they name their children. If that is true for parents in general, it was certainly true of Yosef haTsadik.
We will recall that Joseph reveals his reason for naming his sons as he does. His firstborn, Manasseh, is so named “because G-D has made me forget (nashani) my hardship and (the problems of) my father’s house” (Gen.41:51). His second son, Ephraim, receives his name “because G-D has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my suffering”.
We readily see that whereas Manasseh is named due to a negative outcome “G-D has made me forget”, Ephraim is given his name in recognition of a positive outcome (“G-D has made me fruitful”).
If we examine the opening verse of the Sidra summarising the years of Jacob’s life (47:28), we see something fascinating. Whereas ages are normally chronicled greater number to smaller number, e.g. “a hundred years, seventy years and five years” in the case of Abraham (Gen. 25:7), here Jacob’s lifespan is chronicled smaller to greater – seven-and-forty years and a hundred years. Explains R. Chaim ben Attar (Or haChaim): forty seven is chronicled first next to the phrase sh’nei chayyav, “the years of his life”. These were the good years, the years he spent in the company of his beloved wife Rachel and/or his cherished son Joseph plus the first six years of his life which were carefree. (Thank G-D even today one does not normally hear of a five-year-old suffering from depression.) They are listed first maybe to teach that we must always prioritise the positive over the negative.
This is the lesson Jacob wanted to leave for posterity – and he teaches it by example in the last year of his life by prioritising Ephraim over Manaasseh. It is Ephraim’s good mazal (fortune) that he has a name signifying a positive concept – ‘fruitful’ – and it is Manasseh’s lesser mazal that his name reflects the negative trait of “forgetting”. Hifrani comes before nashani!
May we call this the first instance of positive discrimination in human history!