It is customary on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, that parents bestow upon their sons the customary blessing that they grow up to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, despite the fact that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses are the more noteworthy and memorable players in the history of the Jewish people. And the rabbis have some interesting explanations for this, why such an important blessing on the holy day of Shabbat should be reflective of two of the lesser known members of the story of the Jews.
First, a primer on Ephraim and Manasseh. As we know, Joseph (he of the Technicolor dream coat) was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, sold to traders heading to Egypt. After spending some time in prison in Egypt, Joseph eventually made a name for himself as the official dream interpreter for Pharaoh and, upon learning of his success, Jacob and the rest of his brothers moved to Egypt. By that time, Joseph had already had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh. The tradition at that time was to bestow certain blessings on the male children of the family and Joseph brought Ephraim and Manasseh to be blessed by their grandfather, whose blessing was that Israel would bless their sons that G-d would make them as if they were Ephraim and Manasseh.
So what was so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that generation after generation has bestowed this particular blessing related to them? The rabbis, as you can well expect, have different explanations.
One of them is that Ephraim and Manasseh were born in Egypt in a highly secularized society. The belief in one god was not commonly held, and it was very easy to lose beliefs and ascribe to the Egyptian theory of worship. But Ephraim and Manasseh, despite living in such conditions, maintained their beliefs as passed down from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph. Thus the hope and desire that in the face of adversity or challenge, the sons of the Jewish people would not lose their faith, but would be as Ephraim and Manasseh.
But I like this interpretation better.
The Bible is fraught with narratives of brothers who simply don’t get along. Consider the relationship between Cain and Abel. Or how about Isaac and Ishmael, or Jacob and Esau or even Joseph and his other brothers.
(Remember a while back we discussed how simple estate planning could have saved thousands of years of war? http://robcohen13.com/2011/09/26/dov-youre-always-fighting-and-youre-always-in-a-place-where-you-might-get-killed/)
But Ephraim and Manasseh? The rabbis tell us that these two brothers did not fight; there was no strife between them. So to be as Ephraim and Manasseh is to maintain a relationship with your brother which is free from discord.
It’s funny actually. I had never heard the story of Ephraim and Manasseh before or the derivation of the Shabbat blessing until this past Friday night. In using the example of the warring brothers throughout Jewish history, our rabbi asked of the congregation if they knew the two brothers in Jewish history who did not fight. Being the typical smart-aleck that I am, I murmured that it was the Cohens, namely my brother and I. While amusing (perhaps only to myself), it certainly was disheartening, when I thought more about it, that strife amongst families is not unusual. Just because people share the same blood and even the same upbringing, harmony is not guaranteed.
Can you see where I am going with this? I have told you before, being an attorney can sometimes be a curse. It is something about the training in law school, but attorneys think differently. They issue spot, they are always assessing risk, and they are always taking simple and straight-forward concepts and making them difficult. Which is why the discussion of the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh struck a chord with me. For if all of our sons and, let’s not be sexist, daughters were to be as Ephraim and Manasseh, then I would be out of a job. Family strife, while discouraging and unfortunate, pays my bills…
But I would certainly trade it all away for harmony. To me there is nothing more heart-breaking than a family in turmoil resulting from interpersonal relationships.