Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayechi
To dedicate this lesson

Jews - The Choosing People


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

After a life filled with trial and tribulation – a life that he, himself, described as "short and troublesome" – Yakov prepares to take leave of this world. But, perhaps as Hashem’s way of rewarding this greatest of Avot, his final days are filled with blessings. Vayechi is largely about the brachot which Yakov bestows upon his progeny gathered around him.

Most fascinating is the blessing Yakov gives to his grandchildren Efraim and Menashe. They become the paradigm for all future parents, who will bless their boys to "be like Efraim and Menashe." Why davka are these two singled out, among his many grandchildren?

Many answers are given, from the fact that these boys remained faithful even while cut off from their extended family, to the idea that they, alone, had a relationship with their grandfather (as opposed to Avraham and Yakov, or Yitzchak and the 12 Tribes).

But why does Efraim the younger achieve prominence over Menashe the elder? Is it to re-emphasize the point that merit, rather than pedigree, is ultimately the essential yardstick of excellence? (The merit being that Efraim’s descendants, namely Yehoshua, will be greater than those of Menashe).

I suggest there is another possibility. Look at the names of these two young men. Menashe’s name means: "Ki nishanee Elokim….et kal bait avi; G-d has allowed me to forget all that was my father’s house." Menashe represents the desire to separate from the past, to forget about where we come from and zealously embrace a brave new world. Like the Jews who left the "old country" and felt that Jewish traditions were passé and irrelevant in a more modern setting, Menashe symbolizes the well-known syndrome of trying to become "more
American than the Americans."

Efraim’s name means, "Hifranee Elokim b’eretz anyee; G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction." Efraim – though he was the younger son – represents the maturity that comes from understanding that "new" is not always synonymous with "better," that the glitz and glitter of Egypt - like so many stops along the way in our long trek through the Diaspora - masked an oppressive, degrading culture. Efraim may not be older than his brother, but he may very well be wiser.

In the end, Yakov uses the singular "b’cha" rather than the plural, "ba-chem" to refer to the boys. Because, in a sense, each one of us, at some point, goes through this process of questioning our traditions and our time-honored values. Each of us must choose between the lure of flashy, trashy "Egypt" and the holiness of Israel.

Hopefully – like Yakov and Yosef – we will also make the right choice.
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