So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel bless, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh. ’” (Beresheet 48:20)
After he had lived in the land of Mitzrayim for 17 years, the time of Yaakov Avinu’s passing drew near. Realizing that his son Yosef had the political power needed to insure his burial in the land of Canaan, he called his son and made him swear to attend to his transfer to Me’arat Hamachpelah, the burial place of his ancestors. Upon returning from Goshen, Yosef was informed that his father was ill, so he returned with his two sons to be blessed by the aged Patriarch.
The events of that day made significant changes in the makeup of the Jewish people. Firstly, the first-born rights were taken away from Reuven and transferred to Yosef, whereby both his sons became part of the 12 Tribes. This double portion, in effect, made Yosef the halachic bechor — firstborn — rather than the natural-born eldest, Reuven. Secondly, Yaakov reversed the order of priority and made Ephraim, the younger, supreme over Menasheh, the older son. Finally, he instructed our people throughout the generations to bless by invoking the example of Ephraim and Menasheh, saying, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh.”
The question is: With so many special sons, each accomplished in an outstanding spiritual path, why choose the two sons of Yosef as the model for our children to emulate?
The commentators note that all the children of Yaakov Avinu were raised in a pure environment. The house of Yaakov was a home unique in the world for spirituality, morality and special character traits. The influence of the great Matriarchs set the chinuch standards, and the wisdom and piety of our Patriarchs created the spiritual model to emulate. Contact with the gentile neighbors was necessary for material survival, but social interaction was replaced with total insularity. Although raising children under any circumstances is difficult, in this environment it was no surprise that all of his children grew to be especially good.
Ephraim and Menasheh, on the other hand, grew up in the palace of the viceroy of the most immoral, idol-worshipping country on Earth. The 49 levels of spiritual impurity pervaded society, making it difficult for any of its inhabitants to remain aloof from its depravity. Remaining pure and growing in the ways of Torah under such circumstances was an accomplishment that defied the odds of normal human behavior.
That alone was still not reason enough for our Patriarch to pass over the greatness of Yehudah or Yosef, or Yissachar or Zevulun, as the model for one to strive to copy. Yaakov Avinu knew that the greater part of our history would be spent in the clutches of exile. Living as a Jew would mean dwelling in every corner of the Earth among a variety of cultures and societies exposing us and our children to every possible anti-Torah belief and every anti-Torah behavior as well. For this he needed a blessing that would help his offspring throughout the generations survive the immoral heretical onslaught.
Blessing does not preclude the natural means and effort necessary to insulate our children from bad and to teach them to strive towards what is good. In a world that can match the depravity and immorality of any period in human history, and aided by a myriad of wireless intruders into our homes and holy places, we must strive to protect our offspring from the outside secular world. This was once achieved by the children of Yosef, and Jews throughout our history have prayed that their children will do so as well. We pray for our success.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.