Parashat Vayechi: An unsung Torah hero

We should honor Menashe's memory and emulate his example.

A 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible,was unveiled at the Museum of the Bible on November 8, 2019. (photo credit: JAMES STELLUTO/MUSEUM OF THE BIBLE)
A 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible,was unveiled at the Museum of the Bible on November 8, 2019.
This column is dedicated to a great, unsung hero in the Torah. In order to understand why he is such a hero, we need to start at the beginning of the story.
The Torah teaches that we are all brothers and sisters. Uh-oh. The subsequent portrait of siblings is anything but encouraging.
First in the parade of sibling dysfunction stand Cain and Abel, leading with murder. Here the cause seems to be jealousy about God’s preferring Abel’s offering, although an underlying hostility may be presumed.
Next comes estrangement with Isaac and Ishmael. Sarah and Hagar’s conflict highlights a distance between the brothers. Nonetheless, although Isaac and Ishmael do come together to bury Abraham, as far as we know there is little contact between them for most of their lives.
Next is Jacob and Esau, with a nearly lifelong enmity between the two. The appropriation of the birthright is the focus of a struggle that again includes parental influence (in this case Rebecca). Ultimately there is a degree of reconciliation, but even after the two are brought back together, they subsequently go their separate ways.
In recent weeks we have read about Joseph, whose brothers plotted to kill him, and was kidnapped and brought to Egypt. There is forgiveness, but many readers have felt the uneasiness of all future relations between Joseph and his brothers.
Why is sibling rivalry so insistent a thread that Genesis could almost be called the book of fraternal conflict? Since the Torah always overspills its narrative – that is, the story is never just about the story – warring brothers tell us a wider truth about human nature. To begin with, there is a primal aggression in human beings that emerges from the start, inside the family. Those closest to us sometimes suffer most from our anger or unkindness. The Torah, unillusioned about the cracks and flaws in human character, illustrates this by portraying the real cracks and fissures that open under the harmony of family life.
The Torah also emphasizes how often such rivalries involve the parents. Ishmael is exiled by his father; Esau is upended in part by his mother’s plotting and his father’s credulity; Joseph is favored by his father. Even Cain and Abel in their unequal offerings to God are in conflict over the Heavenly Parent’s preferences. In each case a sibling is favored and the result is antipathy.
Family relations are rarely frictionless. The picture is not uniformly bleak however; siblings share much that is deep and true. When Cain, having slain his brother, asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” we know the answer is yes, that siblings have a special responsibility to one another. For many, it is a brother or sister who is the greatest support and friend throughout one’s life.
THIS BRINGS us to our unsung hero. In this week’s parasha, Joseph presents his children to his father for a blessing. Jacob, realizing that Ephraim is the younger, nonetheless crosses his hands and blesses Ephraim with his right hand and Menashe with his left. It is another instance of the favoritism we have seen so often, that has been so destructive.
What does Menashe do? Nothing. He does not protest, cry or scream at the unfairness of it all. Menasseh breaks the pattern of family fracture.
There are several explanations for our practice of blessing a boy on Friday night that he should become like Ephraim and Menashe. The Netziv said that Ephraim was a Torah scholar and Menashe was great in labor and in community works and we wish our children to have both attributes. The Sefat Emet believed that it was about elevating their status to tribes of Israel, these children who had been born in a foreign land, as we wish our own children to take their place in the line of tradition. We may add that these are the brothers who got it right – who acknowledged that everyone has a different role, that distinctions need not cause rancor, as God does not make duplicates.
Menashe did not discover God or receive the Torah. But through his silence, his acceptance – his understanding of difference – he changed history. We should honor his memory and emulate his example.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.