Vayechi -Supplanted by his Children
An enigma we find it this week’s Torah portion is the recognition of Joseph’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, as tribes of Israel. “And now, your two sons, born to you in the land of Egypt before my coming to you in Egypt, they are mine; Ephraim and Menashe, as Reuven and Shimon they shall be to me.” (Genesis 48:5) With these words the tribe of Joseph became two full tribes in all respects, even receiving two portions of the land of Israel. Jacob thus adopted Joseph’s sons, making them his own.
Later in the same chapter Joseph’s sons are again singled out. When Joseph learned that his father’s last days were upon him he rushed to his father’s bedside, bringing his sons with him. Joseph put forth his sons to be blessed by Jacob “And he blessed them on that day saying, by you shall Israel bless saying, ‘may God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’…” (48:20) Indeed, it has since been the practice of the Jewish people to bless our children on Friday nights using the phrase, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’
Numerous explanations are offered by commentaries to help us understand why Ephraim and Menashe are the models for Jewish children. One meaning which has always resonated with me is the idea that Joseph’s two sons were the first of Jacob’s descendants to have grown up in a society with a lifestyle and values contrary to those embraced by our tradition. Despite their environment they succeeded in remaining true to their heritage. Jacob foresaw a future for his descendants which included many years of exile among nations with lower moral standards and with lifestyles inconsistent with a Jewish way of life. Jacob saw the successful upbringing of Joseph’s sons in Egypt and it gave him optimism and hope for the future of his family. ‘Let them all be immune to the negative influences of hedonistic societies, just like Ephraim and Menashe.’
It remains for us to understand why these two grandchildren of Jacob were ‘upgraded’ to the status of full tribes of Israel. Numerous explanations are offered in regards to this question as well. I recently read an astute observation by a colleague which pertains to this very question. Joseph led a life of great success on the one hand, but of great tragedy on the other. His youth was plagued by the jealousy his brothers felt toward him. Although favored by his father, Joseph paid a heavy price for that privilege. He was never ‘one of them.’ Joseph was later enslaved in Egypt, compounding his estrangement. Even when he achieved the high position of Viceroy of Egypt Joseph remained apart from his subjects, never fully trusted by Egypt. It is evident from the passage near the end of Parshat Miketz (when Joseph ate at a table alone) that the Egyptians considered him of a lower class. Now, with the whole family back together and all the quarrels appearing resolved, Joseph is still distrusted by his brothers. They remain concerned that after their father’s death Joseph will seek revenge. Joseph was a very lonely man.
Jacob perhaps recognized this isolation of Joseph and felt it was his destiny. Even posthumously Joseph would not be named with his brothers. Joseph could not fit in. His sons therefore replaced him in the line-up of tribes. The complexity of Joseph’s life is thus mirrored in Jacob’s blessing. Just as in Egypt Joseph had great material success, he similarly received a ‘double’ portion by becoming two tribes through his sons. At the same time, however, Joseph’s personal alienation from his brothers was made permanent by removing his own name from the list of tribes of Israel.