The scene is a famous one. Yaakov, on his deathbed, asks to bless Efraim and Menashe, the two grandsons he only came to know at the end of his life. Yosef, their father, carefully places Menashe, the older son, to his father’s right, and Efraim to his left, so the “stronger” right-handed blessing will go to Menashe. Yaakov crosses his hands over, an act which Yosef takes to be confusion. But Rashi translates the word “שִׂכֵּל” “he crossed” as “sechel”; the tiniest adjustment of vowels transforms “entanglement” to “prudence”.
It’s an act that Jewish parents across the world reenact every Friday night - laying hands and blessing. And remarkably we bless children, classically sons, in the names of Efraim and Menashe. (As a side note, Harris and I bless our sons with not only Efraim and Menashe’s names, but also those of Sara, Rivka, Rahel and Leah - why not bestow the good qualities of the female Biblical characters on our children too?)
But along with the similarities, there are some key differences. First and foremost, hopefully these days our blessing comes without the unsettling signal of preferring one child over another (more on this below).
Second, while today we bless with the priestly blessing:
יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ יָאֵר יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ יִשָּׂא יְהֹוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
“May God bless you and protect you! May God deal kindly and graciously with you! May God bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!” (Bemidbar 6)
Yaakov’s blessing comes with another line also well-known for blessing children:
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכׇּל־רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת־הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ
“The Messenger who has redeemed me from all harm— Bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” (Bereishit 48)
Taking the similarities first, why might we reenact this scene today, invoking the names of Efraim and Menashe who are relatively minor Biblical characters, rather than the more obvious Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov?
Here’s one answer: while favouring one son over the other is a familiar theme in Bereishit (Cain & Hevel, Yitzhak & Ishmael, Yakov & Esav, Yosef & his brothers…) there is something new and different about Efraim and Menashe. As far as we know, they get on with each other! There are no death threats, no being thrown out the family home, no selling into slavery. Their relationship is such a regular fraternal one - presumably with the regular level of fighting and friendship that any parent could relate to - that it merits no mention. Perhaps this is why they are the names invoked for children today. And perhaps this is why the priestly blessing is chosen, rather than Yakov’s blessing invoking the names of his own immediate family with its particularly unhappy sibling relationships.
The theme of unity fits well in this sedra, the final one in the book of Bereishit. After the past soap opera months, twelve brothers stand united around their father’s bed, and two grandsons play and fight in the normal way of siblings. What more can we ask of our own families than unity, and a normal, unremarkable level of squabble?