This week we will conclude the first of the five books of the Chumash- Bereishit– and enter the book of Shemot. It is the end of the dramatic images and densely rich literature featuring our patriarchs and matriarchs, and the beginning of the narration of “the children of Israel.” What began as the story of one family now becomes the history of the Jewish people.
It is fitting then that some of the most memorable scenes and profound lessons are contained in this final portion. One of these scenes occurs as Jacob nears his last moments; he called Joseph to his bedside so he may bless Joseph’s two sons. Jacob then explains to Joseph that these two boys, his grandsons, are like children to him — “Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine in the same way as Reuben and Simeon.”
As he leans his hands on their heads and blesses them, he utters one of the most famous passages in the Torah:”With you Israel will bless, saying, ‘May G?d make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.'” This is why we customarily bless our sons with the words: “May G?d make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.”
One might wonder: why specifically are the names of these two individuals are used in a Jewish blessing? What is the deeper message in this? And why did Yaakov put Ephraim before Manasheh, when Manashe is the first born?
Part of the answer can be found in the meaning behind these names. Hebrew names- and especially biblical names- are not arbitrary titles. They reflect specific character traits. The meaning behind these two names is provided earlier in the Torah: Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for “God has caused me to forget all my toil and my father’s house.” The second one he named Ephraim for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
These short phrases only hint at their significance. The commentaries provide the more profound explanations of how these names encapsulate the life accomplishments of Joseph.
To see how let’s first discuss the life of Joseph. It is the ultimate success story. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he begins his life in a new land as a servant for a wealthy owner. He is thrown into prison for a crime he never committed, and, through a string of auspicious events emerges to become the viceroy of Egypt.
Yet, perhaps the greatest accomplishment lies in his character. He remains humble throughout, deflecting praise- never wanting to take credit for his wisdom, talents, and insight. Through all the ordeals he remains faithful to the morals and ideals espoused by Jacob. He is described by Pharaoh and by others as “a man of G-d.”
Despite being robbed of his youth and a family, all at the hands of his jealous brothers, he shows no anger or resentment upon meeting them again. Instead he reassures them that it was part of the divine plan to enable him to help sustain his family in hard times. He then provides them with the best land in Egypt.
So in summary, Joseph was the epitome of a principled man, a man whose values were unaffected by his environment, whose character withstood the most profound tests. On the outside he wore the garb of a king but on the inside he remained the humble, G-d fearing, and refined man that his father had groomed.
The names chosen for Joseph’s sons are testimony to Jacob’s accomplishment as a parent, the extraordinary accomplishments of Josef’s, and of the children who followed in their footsteps. These titles also signify a broader message about the Jewish struggle and continuity.
Manasseh and Ephraim were born prior to Jacob’s arrival in Egypt. The dream of every good teacher or parent is to make the other independent- to give them the knowledge and skills to be free of assistance, not having to rely on constant guidance. The true test of whether the individual has internalized this guidance is how they will act in a threatening environment when the parent or teacher is absent.
Manasheh, from “to forget” is interpreted to indicate that Joseph was in a foreign environment and culture that threatened to make him forget his past. Alone and with only the memory of “his father’s house” his first challenge was to maintain his identity, to not forget where he came from. This success is signified by the name Manasheh.
But Joseph went a step further than simply surviving- he “prospered.” He ruled Egypt, was able to gain the respect and admiration of all people, and influence his surroundings. This accomplishment is signified by the name Ephraim.
Thus, these two names, signifying two stages of survival and success in a foreign land, tell a familiar story to the Jewish people and serve as the source of blessing and encouragement for each individual.