Parshat Vayechi is the last Parasha in the book of Genesis. In this parsha we find Jacob on his deathbed and desirous of blessing his sons. This is the first instance in the Torah of someone getting sick and knowing that their death is approaching. Prior to this point in the Torah, when someone’s death is mentioned, it says “and so-and-so was old, and died.” The commentaries say that Jacob requested of G-d that he become sick before he die, thereby giving him warning that his end was approaching and giving him time to to bless his sons before he died.
In verse 48:1 Joseph found out that Jacob was sick. Joseph then "took his two sons with him." (presumably to bring them to Jacob, although it doesn't say that anywhere). When Joseph and his sons got there, Jacob sat up in bed, and told Joseph that his two sons would now be considered like Jacob's children, and will get a portion in the land just like the rest of the brothers.
Interestingly, the Torah doesn't say that Joseph brought his sons to Jacob, but that Joseph took his sons with him. What it could mean is that not only did Joseph bring his sons physically to Jacob, but also that Joseph kept them close to himself, so that they wouldn't be spiritually influenced by their non-Jewish surroundings. Jacob recognized this, which is why he felt strengthened when Joseph came to him with his sons.
With the act of Jacob claiming his grandsons as his own, he made sure to stress that it was those two sons that were born in Egypt (48:5). Their greatness and Joseph's greatness was that they identified as and lived as Jews despite living in Egypt. And finally, although his hands were on the two grandsons, Jacob's blessing was that Joseph's children, and anyone who has to live in a non-Jewish world, should be protected throughout history so that we can all be proudly called the children of Avraham and Yitzchak (and Jacob). The blessing that is given is: Y’simcha Elohim k’Efraim v’Menasseh” “So he blessed them that day, saving, "By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh."
This is the same blessing that parents all over the Jewish world give their children on Friday nights. What is special about Efraim and Manasseh? They didn’t assimilate. They were the sons of an important man in Egypt, living for much of their lives apart from any kind Jewish community, yet they kept to their heritage. This is a blessing to forestall assimilation. This is a blessing that says you can be successful and fulfilled regardless of where you live and what’s going on around you – and still remain Jewish.
Perhaps this message is why we read this Parasha so soon after Chanukah, a holiday about Jewish identity. With all that is going on in the world today regarding religion and tolerance, the message of this parsha should be taken to heart. Even in a place as hostile to Jews as Egypt was, there was a way to live there and continue to have a positive Jewish identity. My prayer is that in our world today, all people can find a way to live through these hostile times and still maintain their own positive religious identities and at the same time, allow others to as well, whatever religion they may belong to.
Food for Thought:
~If you were to compose a blessing to give to your children each Friday night, what would it be?
~Jacob blessed his grandchildren, Efraim and Manasseh, before his eldest child Reuben. Why would he do that? Note: consider the biblical motif of the younger son inheriting before the elder. How does that fit in here?
This dvar originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.