When we think about our personal legacies, and the intangibles we leave behind along with money, jewelry and other goods, two of the things that are often at the top of a list of “spiritual” or “ethical” bequests are a desire that one’s children get along once the parents are gone, and that even in the face of social and communal difficulties, that they remain true to the religion, values and ethics with which they were raised.
It’s customary in traditional Jewish homes for parents to bless their children before Shabbat dinner. To their daughters, they say, y’simeych elo-him k’Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah, “May God make you like (our matriarchs) Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” To our sons, we say, y’simcha elo-him k’ephraim v’khi menasheh, “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
Isn’t this curious … one would think we’d want God to make our sons like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, perhaps even Moses! But Ephraim and Manasseh?
The answer to “why them?” lies in this week’s parashah, Vayechi, which begins by telling us that “Jacob lived” for 17 years in the land of Egypt, bringing his total years to 147.
Unlike his ancestors, who died quietly and were buried by their sons, Jacob is aware of his mortality, and takes the opportunity of his infirmity to settle things with his family. He first extracts a promise from Joseph that he would be taken to the land of Israel to be buried with his parents, grandparents and wife Leah.
After an undetermined amount of time has passed, Joseph was told that his father was ill, and he took his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, with him to see Jacob. After announcing that the two boys would have the same status as Jacob’s other sons, he offers them a blessing which concludes with, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
The text itself isn’t much help, but there are a couple of reasonable explanations. One comes from a contemporary Israeli rabbi, Mordechai Elon, who wrote that Ephraim and Manasseh are the first pair of brothers in the Bible who don’t see each other as competitors. The second comes from the 19th century Israeli rabbi Shmuel Hominer. He points out that Ephraim and Manasseh were born and grew up in Egypt, not in Israel like their ancestors. They remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors; for lack of a better word, Judaism.
We can’t control what our children, nieces, nephews and others do – we can hope and pray that we’ve given them a strong foundation of values, morals and ethics, along with the ability to make wise decisions. And that’s the beauty of an ethical will written while you’re still alive … if there’s more work to be done, G-d willing there’s time.