The hidden blessing of Ephraim and Menashe


Rabbi Deborah Reichmann | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26.

The end of the beginning. After taking us from Creation through the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, Bereshit (Genesis) comes to a close, tying up the loose ends of Jacob’s story and establishing how the Israelites found themselves living in Egypt. In this parshah we see Jacob giving his blessings and prophecies to his sons and also to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. These names should be familiar: when we bless our children on Shabbat or on Yom Kippur, the parental blessing for sons reads, “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.”

But, who are Ephraim and Menashe? Why do we bless our sons in their name, and not in the name of the patriarchs, or other exalted figures in the Torah?

Ephraim and Menashe are Joseph’s sons; their mother was Oznat, daughter of an Egyptian high priest, and Jacob blesses them as his own and gives them each tribal leader status.

From the text (as sparse as it is), these seem to be the only set of male siblings in the Torah who do not fight with one another. Thus, blessing our children to be like them is to bless them with kindness and patience.

There is another blessing hiding here, too. That of being part of an interfaith family. Ephraim and Menashe were interfaith by birth, with one foot in each world, that of Egypt and that of their ancestor Abraham. Given the brothers’ esteemed parentage they could have (and probably did have) access to the highest tiers of Egyptian society. They might have felt pressure to adopt all the local customs, including the religion, but as implied by the biblical text, they remained monotheistic — loyal to God.

Navigating interfaith waters would surely have been as difficult in their times as in ours, and it may have had many of the same benefits, as well. What benefits, you ask? Those of insight, of compassion, of diversity. Insight, inasmuch as their perspective allowed for a greater understanding of their society. An understanding filtered through multiple lenses, less likely to be swayed by blind loyalty, extremism or dictum. Compassion — odds are that even as privileged members of society they probably experienced some forms of discrimination and aggression, just for being different.

Obviously, we don’t have the details, but the fact that they emerged as friends to one another and as future leaders points to their being able to take the struggles in stride and not hold grudges, or take retribution. And diversity? Well, knowing that they were themselves different from their peers might have given them an appreciation of multiple cultures and modes, an appreciation that they themselves were apart, yet valuable, to their society.

Our world is complex, varied and nuanced. Interfaith may mean a family of two religions, or three, or more. A common conception is that being interfaith is some sort of dilution, or lessening of one or both or all of the religions involved. This conception is no more true now than it was in the times of Ephraim and Menashe. There is beauty and grace in a dynamic that recognizes the value of different faiths. There is a well of insight to be found in finding the commonalities among different religions. There is a trove of opportunities to indulge in compassion and empathy as interfaith families and individuals struggle with their own identities. There is a wealth for all of us available in embracing the diversity that interfaith families bring to our world. ■

Rabbi Deborah Reichmann is rabbi at the Interfaith Families Project.

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