Vayechi: It All Depends on Effort
Jewish parents bless their daughters to be like our holy matriarchs. Yet, they bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe; why them particularly?
by Rabbi Lazer Brody
"And he blessed them that day, saying, 'By you shall Israel bless. Saying, May the Lord make you like Ephraim and Menashe' – and he put Ephraim before Menashe..." (Genesis 48:20)
On Friday night when coming home from the synagogue, Jews have the lovely custom of blessing their children. We bless our daughters and say, "May the Lord make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." As we bless our girls to be like our holy matriarchs, we would expect to bless our boys to be like the holy patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Surprisingly, that's not the case. We bless our sons the way our forefather Jacob told us to and say, "May the Lord make you like Ephraim and Menashe." Why? What is the significance of blessing the boys to be like Ephraim and Menashe?
The most remarkable characteristic of Ephraim and Menashe is that despite their being the only Hebrew children in Egypt, the world's center of sorcery and promiscuity, they grew up righteous, unscathed by their spiritually devastating surroundings. Jacob saw that his two grandchildren followed in the footsteps of their righteous father Joseph. He saw that they were brought up in holiness. In his tremendous, far-seeing holy spirit, Jacob knew that his offspring would be facing difficult challenges in strange lands before the coming of Moshiach and the ingathering of the exiles, may it be soon, amen. Jacob knew that the tests of spiritual survival would be even more difficult than the pogroms and holocausts that would threatened physical survival throughout our history of exile. If I'm not mistaken, that's the main reason Jacob wanted us to bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, so that they'd have the moral fortitude to follow Hashem's commandments and resist both the benevolent temptations of assimilation from one extreme, and the tyrannical death-threatening attempts to separate them from Hashem and His Torah on the other extreme.
The question remains, why mention Ephraim before Menashe in the blessing? Menashe was the first-born, and by right, he should have been mentioned first.
In Halacha, the first-born son has special privileges: the younger siblings must respect him and he receives a double portion of the family inheritance. As such, the first-born symbolizes one who is advantaged from birth.
Through the example of Ephraim and Menashe, the Torah is conveying an important message: advantages of birth such as blue-blooded pedigree and high natural intelligence do not assure success in Jewish spirituality, neither in Torah nor in the service of Hashem. Effort is ladder that uplifts a person in spiritual ascent. For example, a person may ride an escalator up to the second floor, but if someone is running up the steps two and three at a time, he'll get to the top quicker than the person on the escalator. Clearly, advantages of birth are like an escalator. The son of a Rosh Yeshiva who grows up in a home that's immersed in Torah definitely has an advantage from birth. But unless he devotes concerted effort to his Torah studies, his advantage will be meaningless. The spiritually-hungry son of a butcher or a plumber who is willing to invest days and nights to Torah while refraining from all sorts of inconsequential time-stealing pastimes can outshine his peers, even the ones from the blue-blooded homes. It's the effort that counts.
Our sages tell us that while Menashe was involved in political affairs in his father's court, Ephraim went to Goshen to learn Torah from his grandfather Jacob. Despite Menashe's relative advantage from birth, Ephraim outshone him. Both were wonderful young men, but Ephraim gained the spiritual edge by virtue of his efforts. Rather than dealing in political and diplomatic affairs as Menashe did, Ephraim chose to devote himself to Torah and excelled to the point that he gained an advantage over his brother.
In light of the above, the Torah is telling every Jewish young man – and reminding him every Friday night – that it's not one's advantage from birth that makes a person great; it's the effort he is willing to devote. We remind our sons of this every time we bless them that they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. It doesn't matter if you're the underdog; in only matters what you do with yourself. Anyone – even the most disadvantaged – can accomplish anything with sufficient prayer, dedication and willingness to make the needed effort and never give up.
Rabbi Lazer Brody was born in Washington, D.C. in 1949. After receiving his bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Maryland in 1970, he moved to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces regular army, and served in one of the elite special-forces units. He is a decorated combat veteran of two wars and numerous of counter-insurgence and anti-terrorist missions on both sides of Israel's borders.
Rabbi Brody is the English-language editor of Breslev Israel's highly popular English-language website at www.breslev.co.il, and the founder and director of Emuna Outreach. Between Breslov Israel and Emuna Outreach, he devotes his time to spreading emuna and particularly the teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev around the globe.
"Lazer Beams," Rabbi Brody's award-winning daily web journal, has been instrumental in helping tens of thousands of people around the globe find joy and fulfillment in their lives.