Parashat Vay’chi, Genesis 47:28-50:26
David Wein, Tikvat Israel, Richmond, VA
He blessed them that day and said, “In your name will Israel pronounce this blessing: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. Genesis 48:20
Every week at shul we bless the sons in our community with this blessing, as Jacob instructed us to do. (We also bless the daughters, of course, that they would be like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.) It’s always an encouragement to look from the bima and see fathers and mothers blessing their children. But why do we do this, aside from following the instruction that Jacob gives us? And why Ephraim and Manasseh?
To answer this, let’s look back at the life of Jacob, for these parashiyot are his story as much as they are Joseph’s. Specifically, let’s look at the narrative of the blessings of Jacob.
The first blessing that Jacob receives is stolen, usurped, from Esau. Notice the parallels between this blessing and the one in this week’s parasha. In both cases, the father is dying, nearly blind, and blessing his descendants. In the first, Jacob impersonates his elder brother, reversing the expectation that the elder brother would receive the blessing. As befits his name, Jacob supplants his brother to obtain the blessing.
By contrast, in the narrative of this week’s parasha, Jacob, now the father and grandfather of the story, crosses his hands in the blessing. Again, the younger brother, Ephraim, will be set above the older brother, Manashe. But this time there is no supplanting going on, none of the trickery and fraternal rivalry that we’ve seen in Jacob’s narrative (or in the greater narrative of the patriarchs in Genesis). We remember Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Even the “sister wives” conflicts can be seen this way: Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah.
But Ephraim and Manasseh are different. There is no record of their rivalry in the text. This seems to be a break from the cycle of brother against brother, pointing toward humility, harmony, and preferring the other to themselves. So when we bless our children with this blessing, we are proclaiming a break in the cycle of contention between brothers. We are declaring a vision of shalom among natural and spiritual brothers and sisters, the fullness of which comes through the prince of shalom, Yeshua the Messiah.
The next blessing of Jacob is the blessing that he wrestles from the Angel. Trickery has given way to godly gumption, holy chutzpah. This is the part of Jacob’s character that we admire. Jacob values the blessing of God, and is willing to wrestle for it. And he is henceforth known as Israel. And the Israelites (b’nei Yisrael) are identified by his name from this point on—we are those who wrestle it out with Hashem. We are the children of holy chutzpah.
As he lays dying, Jacob confers this value of blessing onto his grandchildren. He is setting forth an edict from generation to generation, from parents to their children, to speak and value God’s blessing throughout all generations. And this we do every Shabbat until the present day.
The third blessing of Jacob is the one that he gives to Pharaoh, just before this week’s parasha:
Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?” And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.” Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence. (Genesis 47:7-10)
Maybe it seems like a minor detail, but it is mentioned twice in the above verses that Jacob blessed Pharaoh, drawing it to our attention. The principle in Scripture is that the greater person, the one in authority, bestows blessing (Hebrews 7:7). Jacob is blessed by Isaac, his father, and the angel of the Lord. Jacob, in turn, blesses his grandchildren and Pharaoh. But how could this man, who has had “few and difficult” years on earth, somehow be greater than Pharaoh?
Stepping back to see the larger narrative, we know that Israel is called to be a blessing to the nations. This was the charge given to Abraham, and continues until today. And here we see the namesake of Israel, Jacob, blessing the king of the mightiest nation of the known ancient world. Hashem’s kingdom gives authority differently than earthly kingdoms. What kind of authority would a man have if he has no earthly kingship? A man who suffers, whose days are few and difficult, who brings blessing to all the nations of the earth with the true authority of heavenly kingship. Perhaps you know of someone else who fits this narrative besides Jacob.
Moreover, at this point Jacob is walking in his identity as the one who blesses instead of just the one who receives blessing. That is why he is able to bless his grandchildren from the right place. He has learned the value of blessing, his character shaped by suffering, and he is ready to pass this on to Joseph and to Joseph’s sons.
So why do we bless our children that God may make them as Ephraim and Menashe? Because in this blessing we see all the values of Jacob’s life come together: the values of blessing, humility, identity, and hope. Hebrews 11:21 looks back on this episode with this comment:
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
Jacob’s faith was now a prophetic prayer, trusting in the promises of God. Joseph, rather than being only one of the twelve tribes, is now counted as two. From the tribe of Ephraim came Joshua. From the tribe of Manasseh arose Gideon. When we pray this over our children, as Jacob instructed, we are conferring not only blessing but also prophetic hope. We are looking forward to Yeshua’s total and complete kingship over our children, and all the children of Jacob, to bring the hope of Jacob’s blessing to fruition.