Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayechi January 2, 2015

Genesis 47:28 – 50:26

In this week’s Torah reading, Jacob elevated his two grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the status of tribal leaders equal to his own sons. In the course of doing so, he bestowed on them a blessing that has become the standard blessing by which Jewish fathers bless their sons every Friday night before the Sabbath meal.

“So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel bless, saying; ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.’ “  Many a person through the ages has wondered why Jacob instructed the Jewish people to bless their sons that they be like Ephraim and Manasseh?  Why not bless them to be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

One of the answers given is that Ephraim and Manasseh achieved more than their potential.  Up until this blessing, only the sons of Jacob were considered as leaders of the twelve Tribes. Ephraim and Manasseh were grandsons, not sons, of Yaakov, and therefore it would seem that they were not destined to hold the office of tribal leaders.  However, Jacob elevated them, in part because of the extraordinary spiritual status of their father, Joseph.  Thus they achieved the incredible accomplishment of reaching beyond their potential. We bless our children to emulate Ephraim and Manasseh in the hope that they also will fulfill and even surpass their potential.  We pray for our children to be truly ‘great’ in every area of life: spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically.

But that’s not the whole story.  Ephraim and Manasseh are the only tribal leaders that were born in exile, in Egypt.  As such, they are representative of all the Jews throughout the centuries who have been born, raised and lived outside the land of Israel, the Jewish home.  Knowing that the future exiles would be long and at times difficult and dark, Jacob signaled an important message to all succeeding generations of Israelites.

Throughout Jewish history there has been a constant tension between “Ephraim and Manasseh”.  It is embedded in their names.  Manasseh means “to forget” and throughout the centuries, Jews living ‘in exile’ – that is, in countries other than Israel – have felt the pull to assimilate, to get comfortable in exile, to get absorbed into whatever culture surrounded them.  Ephraim means “to remember” and represents those Jews who may have lived in the nations but always remembered that their true home was in the Land of Promise.

As Jewish fathers bless their sons each Friday night, they are in fact praying that like Ephraim, their sons will always remember who they are, to Whom they belong and where their true home is; and like Manasseh, they will forget the pain, the persecutions and the prejudice that our people have suffered in order to remain true to their identity as individuals and as part of a people whom God calls His Chosen.

In each of our lives there is a Manasseh and Ephraim principle at work.  There are many things we do well to forgive AND forget – old wounds and hurts, painful circumstances and the like.  That is Manasseh at work in us.

There are also many things we do and should remember: the faithfulness of God’s blessings over generations, our true identity as chosen of God for ‘a future and a hope’, as the prophet Jeremiah wrote. That is Ephraim.

Part of the process of achieving spiritual maturity is knowing what to forget and what to remember.

In Tune with Torah this week = having just now entered into the new year of 2015, it is a perfect time to let go of all that we should forget and cling with renewed faith to God’s love, His faithfulness, His promises and His blessings, entering into this new year with fresh resolve to deepen our relationship with Him and with each other.

Shabbat Shalom

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