By Mark Gerson
Every Friday evening at sundown, we Jews engage in one of the most sacred experiences of being a Jew—and the happiest of being a person. We cease work, turn off all electronics, and focus entirely on the important matter at hand: welcoming God’s special day, Shabbat. We dress in our finest, light the candles, welcome the Sabbath in song, bless our children, say a blessing over the meal, and enjoy a night of family and friendship under the watchful eye of the Lord.
What is one of the most special parts of this remarkable evening? I think the answer would be nearly universal among Jews and Christians: the blessing of the children. We bless our kids with the words of the biblical Jacob from Genesis 48:20: “May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.”
There are many fascinating and instructive aspects to this blessing. One is that it is from a grandparent, as Jacob was the grandparent to Joseph’s boys, Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob was not merely a grandfather—Abraham and Isaac were, as well. But Jacob never had a conversation with Abraham, and his children never had a conversation with Isaac. Jacob is the first and only person in the Torah to have a relationship with his grandchildren. Thus, this blessing focuses our attention on this characteristic of Jacob—and raises a question.
Why do we Jews—as we have for thousands of years—bless our children with the blessing from a grandfather? There is a lot to consider there, and readers who are grandparents (or even grandchildren) will certainly have fruitful ideas. As the book of Genesis demonstrates, parent-child relationships can be fraught with all kinds of complications. Relationships between children and their grandparents are much more likely to be pure, complete, and full of simple love, joy and delight. So of course we want our children to have this kind of relationship with God!
Moreover, this wholeness comes—perhaps counterintuitively—with responsibility. Jewish grandparenthood involves plenty of fun and some spoiling but, perhaps more importantly, with the obligation of transmission. The grandparent-grandchild relationship embodies the connection between the past and the future—between memory and yearning—and Jewish grandparents have the responsibility to use their wisdom, experience and relationships to sow the Jewish future by instilling Jewish virtues, customs and practices in their grandchildren. This is magnificently illustrated by the biblical Jacob. We know a lot about Jacob’s grandfather and his father. Then we have Jacob, followed by Joseph and then Ephraim and Manasseh. Jacob was the direct link between five generations, as grandparents often are.
The ages given to biblical figures demonstrate that the Torah is not a history book, as Jacob died relatively young at 147. But how long are five generations today? My oldest grandparent was born in 1903. My youngest grandchild will probably die in around 2140. That means this typical story is only one generation younger than the history of the entire United States of America. No wonder Judaism places the responsibility of transmission upon grandparents.
So it is entirely appropriate that we invoke grandparenthood with the blessing we give our children on the most sacred day of the Jewish week. But this raises another important question: Why do we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, in that order?
This is an interesting question because Manasseh was older. In fact, the only things we know about these two brothers personally is their names and what they mean. Joseph, we are told in Genesis 41:51, named his elder son Manasseh because “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.” He named his younger son Ephraim because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
The order of the names in the blessing Jacob gave to his grandchildren and that we, in turn, give to our children derives from the way in which he gave the blessing. When Jacob realized he was going to die, Joseph brought his boys to Jacob for a blessing. Joseph arranged his boys in age order, to enable the blessing from his nearly blind father. Jacob, however, crossed his hands expressly to give the superior blessing to the younger child. Joseph thought his old father was experiencing a senior moment, but Jacob assured him he knew exactly what he was doing.
Why did Jacob give the superior blessing to Ephraim? There are two potential reasons, both of which fit with Jacob’s existential purpose as the ultimate transmitter: to instruct us how to live better, happier and more meaningful Jewish lives today. First, the Torah constantly subverts the idea of primogeniture, which was the primary organizing principle of the ancient world. God’s sacred text is clear that being born first does not entitle one to special privileges. The responsibility of transmission is too important to be accorded by accident of birth. It might be given in accordance with one’s demonstrated abilities to enact it. Thus, Abel gains primacy over Cain, Jacob gains primacy over Ishmael, and Judah, Moses and David gain primacy over their older siblings. Genesis would almost have to conclude with a subversion of primogeniture, as it certainly did.
The second reason is revealed in that all we know of the brothers individually is what is explained by their names. Both names express how one can perpetuate the moral and religious life. Manasseh represents overcoming the obstacles imposed by one’s past, and Ephraim represents advancement and growth. In other words, Manasseh is defense and Ephraim is offense.
Jacob makes it clear that both preventing the negative and striving for the positive—defense and offense—are important, as both boys receive blessings. The question of which should be emphasized is core to the religious life. Should the transmission of a faith system or moral order be oriented toward what we cannot do and who we risk becoming, or toward what we can do and who we should become? Jacob—our father Jacob—is, through the swapping of hands, making his preference clear. We must emphasize the positive, the potential, the growth, the dreams and the work to achieve them, the love of God, and the joy in it all. This, as Jews and our Gentile friends who love Shabbat intuitively understand, is the secret to transmission.
The Torah is the ultimate book for all seasons, with life lessons taught by almost every figure. If the Torah were a play, Ephraim and Manasseh would be considered supporting characters, with the main characters being Adam, Abraham, Sarah, Noah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and, of course, God. Why, on the sacred night of Shabbat, would we choose to bless our children to be like Ephraim and Manasseh?
First, the book of Genesis is a story of family dysfunction. The dysfunction is between parents and children, siblings, cousins, and in-laws. Manasseh, who is upstaged by his younger brother, has every reason to be jealous, angry or vengeful. But he is not. Instead, he chooses family harmony and allows Genesis to end with its first instance of family unity.
Second, Manasseh and Ephraim are born and raised fully in a foreign land. They are, effectively, Egyptian princes. Yet they maintain their Jewish identity and become—we see later in the Torah—key to the transmission of the Jewish future.
Third, we do not bless our children to be like just Ephraim, or just Manasseh, perhaps dependent on the personality of each one. We bless each child to be like both. In so doing, we acknowledge that the transmission of Judaism—or any moral system—will require defense and offense. Some children will, in accordance with the uniqueness with which God has made them, tend more toward Ephraim or Manasseh. But in this blessing, we acknowledge a Jew in full should cultivate both characteristics—even if the traits of Ephraim are ultimately those that will help us most to create a dwelling place for God on earth.
Mark Gerson, a devoted Jew, is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who (along with his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson) is perhaps the world’s largest individual supporter of Christian medical missions. He is the co-founder of African Mission Healthcare (AMH) and the author of a forthcoming book on the Haggadah: The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life.