This coming Shabbes, we will draw our public reading of Sefer Bereshit to a close as we read the final section of the Book of Genesis known as Parashat Vayechi. As with so many of the parshiot in the first of our five books of the Torah, there are so many delicious nuggets that capture our attention and stimulate our imaginations. Each calls out to us, Darshaynee, dive deep and spend hyperfocused time unpacking me as a way to find inspiration and personal spiritual meaning!
As a father of sons and daughters and one who is fortunate to receive and bestow a weekly parental blessing (may my parents be blessed with vigor of body and spirit), maybe not surprisingly, I am always profoundly drawn to Jacob’s deathbed benedictions. And by far, the most intriguing of these brachot for me is the one the patriarch bestows upon his grandchildren, Joseph’s children Efraim and Menasheh.
The portion of Vayechi recounts that Jacob elevated these two grandsons to the status of full-fledged Shevatim (tribes of Israel). And from this tale, we derive, to this very day, the notion of blessing our male offspring to be like these two men.
The obvious question is: Why did Jacob instruct the Jewish people to bless our sons to emulate Efraim and Menasheh in particular and not our avot (patriarchs) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? After all, when we bless our female children, we pray for them to imitate our imahot (matriarchs) Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
One possible answer that resonates with me this year is that unlike the other men for whom the Tribes of Israel are named, Efraim and Menasheh did not receive their special status by virtue of biology alone; they earned their elevated status. They did not ride the proverbial coattails of their forebears, rather they acquired zechut (special merit) by the manner in which they conducted and comported themselves. In fact, one might say that they did not just achieve and realize their God-given potential, they actually surpassed it.
Recently, immediately following a moving Brit Milah ceremony, the grandfather of the newborn who already has several other grandsons shared with me that he finally understood the words recited at a ritual circumcision. “Zeh HaKatan, Gadol Iheyeh.” These words do not simply mean that we pray that the child will grow in height, girth and stature. We do not want him to simply aspire for normalcy or mediocrity. What we desire is that he will aspire to spiritual gadlut, elevated, transcendent, and superior lofty heights – true greatness.
What a poignant and beautiful insight. As we lovingly lay our hands on our precious children’s heads this coming Friday night, I invite us all to hold the notion of blessing our descendants to be like Efraim and Menasheh in the forefront of our minds, helping them aspire to successes and triumphs that are far beyond their, and even our, hopes and dreams. Amen!
Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick senior rabbinic chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.