In Parashat Vayechi, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, on his deathbed and asks them to bury him in Canaan
Prof. Moshe Benovitz, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, brings a personal insight to the parasha and the Friday night parental blessing of children. When we say: “May God bless you to be like Ephraim and Menashe,” what do we mean? To what extent can parents have hopes and aspirations for their children?
Full transcription below:
When my wife and I were expecting our first child, I was very nervous. Not only because of the existential issue of having a little baby, a helpless baby for whom me and my wife are entirely responsible, but also because of the question of how much influence it was legitimate to have over such a young, innocent babe.
Parents influence their children in two basic ways that are the mainstays of anyone’s personality. The first is nature and the second is nurture. The child’s genes are basically our genes and the child’s environment that he grows up in, is primarily the household that we create for him. Beyond that, is it legitimate for the parents to have expectations from the child or even desires regarding his way of life, regarding his career, regarding his choice of marriage partner, regarding the way he raises his children. Or is it legitimate for us to interfere in these matters even to the point where we want it so badly that we inculcate that somehow into his personality? I think it’s not, and I think we have to watch ourselves on that count. And I think that’s one of the messages of this week’s Parashah.
Jacob our father, when he blessed his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, blessed them with the blessing that throughout history, Israelites will bless their children through them by saying, ‘may God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’. Why Ephraim and Menashe? We know absolutely nothing about Ephraim and Menashe. Jacob could have said that throughout history, the Israelites will bless their children on Friday night or any other time by saying, may God make you like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or may God make you like Judah and Joseph. But Jacob chose Ephraim and Menashe, about whose personalities we know nothing.
The rabbis in the Midrash try to fill in some details of Ephraim and Menashe life for this reason. The rabbis in the Midrash tried to say that Ephraim represents Torah study and he was a Torah scholar and Menashe represents worldliness and he was Josef’s interpreter. But I don’t think that these things are even alluded to in the peukim themselves and the pesahat of the Torah. According to the shot of the Torah, why does Jacob set up Ephraim and Menashe, people about whom we know nothing as the paradigms of all of our children.
I think the answer is precisely because he did not want the personality, the role model to have content. The child is supposed to reimagine Ephraim and Menashe in his own image. The parents can have hopes and aspirations for their kids. Their hopes and aspirations have to be that they’d be great like Ephraim and Menashe. What does that mean? That’s up to the child himself. The child has to imagine Ephraim and Menashe in his own image, in the image of the child himself.
Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.