The blessing of unity and concession

Since the dawn of humanity – the days of Cain and Abel – brothers were high on the list of disputes and arguments.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
One of the most beautiful and moving rituals that repeats itself in Jewish families every week is when the father of the family returns home from the synagogue after Friday night services, and before he goes to make Kiddush, he gathers his sons and daughters around him and blesses them.
This Friday, the 10th of Tevet, will mark two years since the passing of Fima Falic, of blessed memory. He was a special man, a Kohen, a lover of the nation of Israel and the Land of Israel, a lover of Jerusalem and a friend of the Western Wall. Much has been written and much is yet to be written about this man and the family he left behind. But one of the things I often recall is his blessing of his children and grandchildren every Friday evening. From the sidelines, I was always moved by seeing that while doing so, his heart was filled with glory and pride, tears and joy. May this be for the transcendence of his soul.
Besides the personal blessings that the father wishes his descendants from the depths of his heart, he blesses his sons and daughters using the ancient Jewish text. He blesses his daughters – May G-d bless you to be like Sara, Rivka, Rachel and Leah – the mothers of the nation of Israel; he blesses his sons – May G-d bless you to be like Ephraim and Menashe.
Who were Ephraim and Menashe that they were privileged to be included in the lexicon of Jewish blessings? They were the sons of Yosef, born to him in Egypt. This version of the blessing was created by Ya’acov Avinu in his old age, when he met the grandsons he had not known since he had been living in the Land of Israel, then Canaan, and they were born and lived in Egypt. He conveyed his appreciation for them using the following words: “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.’ (Genesis 48:20) The question that arises when we read about Ya’acov’s blessing of his grandchildren is deep and leads us to take a closer look at this pair of brothers. Why did Ya’acov not bless his sons with “May G-d bless you to be like Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’acov” – the forefathers of the Jewish nation? Why were Ephraim and Menashe chosen to be the symbol and example whom a father wishes his sons to emulate, rather than Ya’acov’s other sons? We get the answer to this question when we read the verses that come before this one and discover that before the blessing, Ya’acov ran a little test on his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe.
Yosef, their father, placed his sons in front of Ya’acov with Menashe, the firstborn, standing across from Ya’acov’s right hand, and Ephraim, the younger son, standing across from Ya’acov’s left hand. This was done purposely so that Ya’acov would place his right hand, symbolizing strength and courage, on the head of Menashe, the oldest son, during the blessing. But Ya’acov surprised everyone by purposely placing his right hand on the head of the younger brother and his left on the head of the firstborn.
Yosef could not understand why his father was behaving this way, and he tried to put Ya’acov’s hands back to the natural order in which the firstborn is the one who continues the family legacy. But Ya’acov insisted on switching the order. Also in the text of the blessing, Ya’acov changed the order and did not say “May G-d make you like Menashe and Ephraim,” but had the younger brother precede the older.
Why did Ya’acov do this? He was testing his grandsons to see if they were worthy of his blessing. Are they unified? Is the older brother capable of surrendering his place to his younger brother? When Ya’acov saw that they did not begin to fight, he recognized the value of these grandchildren whom he had not met since their birth, and put them into the text of a Jewish father’s blessing of his sons.
Since the dawn of humanity – the days of Cain and Abel – brothers were high on the list of disputes and arguments.
Brothers, who are among the closest to each other biologically, tend to be competitive and jealous of one another, resulting in hatred. It is human nature, and we see it around us every day. Family disputes are the most difficult, since the closeness and similarity act as a stimulus for hatred and separation.
The father about to bless his children thinks about what the most appropriate blessing would be. What could he wish them that would benefit them the most? What would contribute to their future in the most efficient way? Ya’acov Avinu taught us that the best things we can wish our children are unity, peace and compromise. These are what we wish to pass on to the following generations, and in this way, we convey our love for our sons.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.