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Friday, January 01, 2010

VaYechi – The Foreign Grandsons

ויברכם ביום ההוא לאמור: בך יברך ישראל לאמר, ישימך אלהים כאפרים וכמנשה. וישם את אפרים לפני מנשה.

(בראשית, מח, כ)

The blessing that Ya’akov gives his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, on his deathbed, has become the traditional blessing of parents to their sons. On Friday evenings and on the eve of Yom Kippur, parents will put their hands on the heads of their children and bless them using the same words Ya’akov used:

And he blessed them that day, saying: 'By thee shall Israel bless, saying: God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.' And he set Ephraim before Manasseh. (Bereshit, 48, 12).

But a closer look at the verses of this week’s parasha reveals a little drama before Ya’akov gives this blessing to his grandsons.

Yossef’s family grew up in Egypt. He married Asnat, the daughter of a local high priest, and his sons were born and raised in the royal court. Yossef names the eldest Menashe “for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house” (41, 51). He names his second son Efraim “for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (41, 52). Thus Yossef, through the names of his sons, marks the break from his past and the connection with his new home, Egypt. The two sons grow up in the house of the high priest of Egypt, not in the house of their Jewish grandfather, Ya’akov.

Even when Ya’akov and his family move to Egypt and settle in Goshen, away from the centre of power and disconnected from Egyptian culture, Yossef and his family remain where they are. His sons continue to grow up in an Egyptian environment. In fact, when Yossef is called to his father’s deathbed, the Torah tells us “he took with him his two sons” (48, 1). One can imagine the trepidation with which Yossef enters his father’s house, fearing whether his father will accept his sons, who have grown up away from him in a completely foreign culture.

Ya’akov starts blessing his son Yossef by telling him how God appeared to him to promise him and his seed the Land of Israel. But then he takes a pause from blessing Yossef and says:

And now your two sons, who were born unto thee in the land of Egypt before I came unto thee into Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh, even as Reuben and Simeon, shall be mine. (48, 5)

The two grandsons are accepted in full by their grandfather and are each given land in Israel, as if they were sons and not grandsons. Yossef thus receives a “double portion” in the Land of Israel. It seems as if Ya’akov accepts Efraim and Menashe fully. But here comes the surprising part. After Ya’akov finishes his blessing to Yossef, the Torah says: “Israel beheld Yossef’s sons and said: Who are these?”.

What is going on here? A minute ago, Ya’akov divided his estate in Israel further to include portions for Efraim and Menashe, and now he asks his son “Who are these?”. He sees these two young men, dressed in the royal Egyptian garb and looking totally foreign to him, and wonders who they are and how they grew up. Are they truly deserving of the land he just promised them in Israel? Shouldn’t he have checked who his grandsons are before imparting such generous gifts unto them?

To understand this seemingly out-of-place question, one needs to remember another place in Bereshit where the words “Who are these?” (מי אלה) is uttered. When Essav meets his brother Ya’akov after the long years of separation and sees his big family, he asks “Who are these?” (33, 5). Ya’akov replies to his brother: “The children whom God has graciously given your servant”.

Yossef’s reply to Ya’akov question is strikingly similar: “They are my sons, whom God has given me here”. This reply reminds Ya’akov of the words he himself uttered in response to Essav’s question, and this memory gives him the understanding that although his grandsons may look foreign, they are his seed and the gift of God. The sons of Ya’akov come in many different shapes and forms, but they are all descendents of the great patriarch, all sons of God, and are therefore worthy of a place in the family.

With this understanding, Ya’akov then proceeds to bless Efraim and Menashe with the blessing that has become the prototype for all future blessings of Jewish parents.

The idea for this week’s Parasha Thought is from R. Binyamin Lau.

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