Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Vayechi, the last of the weekly portions in the Book of Genesis (Bereishit), relates Yaakov’s deeds during his final days in Egypt.
Yaakov’s departure from this world was a process that began when he had Yosef swear to bury him in the Land of Israel, and his burial site would serve to remind his progeny where they were to go after their exile in Egypt had ended. Afterward, he bid farewell to Yosef and his sons Ephraim and Menashe for the last time, leaving them with his blessings.
As the parsha draws to a close, Yaakov offers his parting words to the rest of his sons, who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. He bestows blessings upon each one, most notably, blessings concerning what is to become of them in the future.
Among Yaakov’s blessings is one of the great possessions of the Jewish People, the blessing to his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe. Today, many parents use Yaakov’s blessing to bless their own children at the beginning of Shabbat, on Friday nights: “ישמך אלוקים כאפרים וכמשנה” (“May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe”). The words chosen for this blessing were no accident: Yaakov had foreseen that the Jewish People would bless their children with this blessing – so that we should all have good children, like Ephraim and Menashe.
But what had Efraim and Menashe done to merit this honor? Weren’t Yehudah, Binyamin, and the rest of the brothers just as deserving? Why was it that the names of the two grandchildren were inscribed in the very heart of the nation as blessed children whom everyone should seek to emulate? Was it because, as our Sages tell us, they took care of their elderly grandfather when he lived in Egypt? Was it because of the many languages they spoke fluently, including Hebrew?
Perhaps, Ephraim and Menashe came to symbolize something entirely different for both Yaakov and ourselves. Let us recall the context of the story: Yosef was taken to Egypt against his will, after having been sold by his brothers. He married Osnat, the daughter of Potiphera, a senior Egyptian official, and they had two children, Ephraim and Menashe. These children grew up in Egypt, far away from any supportive Jewish family. Their grandfather lived in the Land of Israel, as did most of their relatives. What kind of education would these children have? Could they preserve their Jewish identity in a world of idol-worshippers such an illustrious culture? Could they take part in the traditions of the Jewish People?
Yaakov meets his grandchildren, and is surprised to discover that despite having grown up in a foreign land, they wish to be in contact with him and to be a part of his heritage. According to rabbinical tradition, they had spoken his language, and they wanted to let him know that despite having grown up in Egypt, and despite being aware of their local cultural milieu, they wanted to be part of the Jewish People, and they even used the Hebrew language, which symbolized the traditions of their forefathers.
Yaakov, who understood that the Jewish People were destined to be dispersed among the nations and exposed to the local cultures of the countries of the Diaspora, wanted to bless us with the ability to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Even when we were surrounded by foreign religions and cultures diametrically opposed to our own, Yaakov wanted us to be able to preserve our unique character and our identities. This is why he establishes Ephraim and Menashe as our role models – so that we would always remember the importance of being connected to the values of the Jewish People throughout the generations.