Jewish custom is for parents to bless their children every Friday night at the time of Kiddush. When blessing our daughters the names of the matriarchs are invoked. When blessing our sons we recite the words, yesim’cha elokim k’Ephraim vchi’Menashe, May the Lord make you as Ephraim and Menashe. Calling upon the names of Joseph’s sons when blessing our own comes from Jacob’s blessing to Joseph and his sons. “And he blessed them on that day, saying, ‘By you Israel shall bless saying, May God make you as Ephraim and Menashe’ and he placed Ephraim before Menashe.” (Gen 48:20)
It makes perfect sense that we bless our daughters to be as our matriarchs. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah are role models for a Jewish woman, and we express this in the context of our blessing. Similarly, the forefathers are role models for Jewish men. One would expect that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would be incorporated into the blessing for Jewish boys, but Jacob interfered, dictating that instead the names of Ephraim and Menashe should be invoked. Why is this so?
Before dictating this blessing Jacob told Joseph that his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, would take their place among the tribes of Israel. They would be numbered among Jacob’s sons. “And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you to Egypt shall be mine. Ephraim and Menashe shall be to me as Reuven and Shimon.” (Gen 48:5)
In addition to replacing the forefathers in the context of blessings Joseph’s sons are elevated over the status of all of Jacob’s other grandchildren, becoming equal to Jacob’s sons as tribes of Israel. What great value is found in Joseph’s sons which justify this?
A basic idea found in the commentators is that Ephraim and Menashe represent children of the Diaspora. These were the first in the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob born and raised outside of the family estate, isolated from the hearth of their tradition. Jacob was pleased that the values of his family were successfully incorporated into their upbringing, despite the physical distance and practical challenges. As the founder of the tribes of Israel and the Patriarch representing life in exile Jacob appreciated the necessity for his offspring to survive such challenges of diasporic life. So important was this ability that he took those first specimens of the exile experiment and embraced them as his own children, signalling that anybody who succeeds in maintaining such identity and practice is worthy of being counted among the sons of Israel. Jacob further solidified this message by dictating that all Jewish boys should aspire to be like Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing which parents would forever bestow upon their sons shall reflect this ideal – be like Ephraim and Menashe.
Yet another quality found in Ephraim and Menashe is generous fraternity. Unlike other sets of brothers in whom rivalry prevailed, Ephraim and Menashe were a paradigm of brothers who loved one another unconditionally. From the earliest part of the Torah’s narrative we find rivalry between brothers. The power struggle between Cain and Abel, the discord between the sons of Noah, Ishmael’s attempt at corrupting Isaac and Esau’s abiding hatred of Jacob. Jealousy of Jacob’s own sons toward Joseph were stoked by his grandiose dreams. Finally Jacob saw a pair of brothers with no ill will of one toward the other, even when Jacob favoured the younger in the blessing. Jacob was so inspired by this transcendence of base nature that he exclaimed in his joy – so shall all children of Israel be blessed!
A further idea of import is the transcendence of generations. This is the first time the Torah shows interaction between more than two generations. We don’t find grandchildren interacting with grandparents until this point. Jacob, however, establishes a relationship with Ephraim and Menashe although they were born in a foreign land. Jacob wished to concretize this relationship and establish a precedent for the future. He did this by elevating Ephraim and Menashe into the sphere of his own children, demonstrating that it is possible to bridge the generation gap and give instruction further down the line than one’s own children. All Jewish children were to be blessed with this capacity of connecting to their origins and the heritage of Israel.