The Friday night blessing in traditional communities includes the phrase “may you be like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Here’s what I’m wondering: why do we mention Ephraim and Manasseh? I mean, most prayers mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…so what the heck are Ephraim and Mannaseh randomly doing in this prayer?
In Parsha Vayechi, Jacob “elevates” the status of Joseph’s sons to that of his sons, in effect, making Ephraim and Manasseh inheritors of the patriarchal lineage and an equal member of the Jewish clan. Traditional commentators say that Ephraim and Manasseh showed themselves worthy by being moral people in the land of Egypt, when they could have been all depraved …like Charlie Sheen!
But Robert Alter in The Five Books of Moses suggests something different. It is not so much that Ephraim and Manasseh were so special. Rather, it is because Reuben and Simeon were such failures, that in a sense, Joseph’s sons act as a replacement for Jacob’s bad kids. The interchange between Jacob and his sons and grandsons is a ritual akin to adoption. It’s also the first time in history that someone went OOOOH, SMACK!
The rule either way is simple: as with all of the brotherly pairs in Genesis (Cain/Abel, Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau), the one who “should” be on top, usually the older, is sacrificed in a sense to the younger. This is a bold statement in a time when firstborn sons are seen as having great spiritual potential.
Religion is a lot like that. It challenges our assumption of who is in and who is out, what is truly good, and what we may be surprised to find out is bad for us, like Red Lobster endless shrimp specials.
I’m still trying to figure out that one.
That’s all for now. Join us next week when we start the book of Exodus, AKA Shmot.