This week Joseph, hearing that his father Jacob is on the edge of death, brings his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to see their old grandfather. Knowing that they stand before him, his eyesight failing, Jacob says that his grandsons will be no less “his” than his actual sons. Joseph positioned his sons opposite his father Jacob for a blessing, expecting that Jacob would bless the first-born Manasseh. But Jacob reversed his hands and blessed Ephraim instead. (Genesis 48)
This is not the first time that the younger son is favored over the first-born. The precedent was established with Cain and Abel and continued with Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob’s 10 older sons and Joseph.
Recalling “The Godfather,” Don Corleone loves all his sons, but he prefers that his youngest, Michael, become Godfather after him because he saw something special in Michael as the future leader of the family.
So too in the Biblical narrative – Abel’s offering to God was of a higher order than Cain’s. Isaac’s devotion to Abraham’s faith exceeded that of Ishmael. Jacob’s spiritual orientation was recognized by his mother Rebecca as opposed to Esau, a hunter and “man of the field.” And Jacob understood that Joseph was graced uniquely by God.
What about Manasseh and Ephraim?
Rashi (11th century, France) had this to say: “Ephraim was frequently in the presence of Jacob for the purpose of study.” (Commentary on Genesis 48:1) The great commentator suggests that Ephraim, the younger son, was essentially like Jacob who preferred the study of Torah with his father to other earthly pursuits. Rashi presumed that Jacob could not have blessed his younger son Ephraim unless he saw something unique and special in him.
Commentators suggest that Manasseh also had special gifts, but of a different kind. They say that Manasseh was a talented linguist and served as Joseph’s interpreter in Pharaoh’s court. Manasseh learned the arts of diplomacy, politics and statesmanship. Whereas Manasseh symbolized worldly wisdom, Ephraim symbolized Torah wisdom.
By choosing Ephraim over Manasseh, tradition ascribes to Jacob the understanding that a Jewish leader must be inspired by Torah learning, regardless of his/her brilliance in business, the sciences, or in his/her understanding of statecraft.
Despite the Biblical tradition of favoring the first-born, Judaism rejected consistently that the birthright should automatically take precedence in determining future leadership. Instead, leadership was to be based on merit and qualities of soul.
Tradition also taught that age can corrupt the imagination and cool the ardors of youth. There must come a time, therefore, when the dreams of the young take precedence and the old step aside.
From its beginnings, the American Reform movement measured its worth according to the ethics of the Biblical prophet. One of the American Reform movement’s great 20th century leaders, Rabbi Jacob Weinstein (z’l), put this idea eloquently:
“Israel should be understood as a permanent underground, the eternal yeast, the perennial Elijah spirit, ever willing to plough the cake of custom, to put rollers under thrones and give only a day to day lease to authority. Anchored to Torah, rooted to God, Israel feels free to dispense with human made hierarchies which would forever place the elder over the younger.”
To be a Jew has meant always to be dissatisfied with the world as it is and to strive to transform it into a more just, compassionate and peaceful society as guided by the principles of Torah. Jacob’s choice of Ephraim for the blessing represents this very promise.