In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, blessings abound. Jacob is dying. His son Joseph, his favorite, the one who truly became the savior of the family, rushes to his bedside to comfort him. Jacob announces that he will adopt Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, and will bless them with inheritance equal to that of his natural sons.
When he catches sight of the two boys, who are actually men, he asks, “Who are these?” Questioning their identity is the first clue that Jacob actually sees more than we think. Questioning their identity leads Joseph to believe that his father’s loss of vision also includes a loss of understanding. But what we learn is that Jacob’s perception is perhaps clearer and more precise than it has ever been before.
Joseph brings his sons close to his father, and his father kisses them and embraces them. He knows who is who. So when Joseph places Menashe, the older, to Jacob’s right, the place of priority, and Ephraim, the younger, to Jacob’s left, the lower spot, Jacob makes a change. Before he blesses the boys, he crosses his arms. He switches the position of the blessing of priority so that the younger receives the senior blessing, and the older receives the second-level blessing. Although he blesses them simultaneously, according to the practice of primogeniture at the time, he disrupts the normal order of things.
We know that throughout the book of Bereishit, this shift between first and second born occurs over and over again. We have seen its impact on the sons (and daughters) and their relationships with each other, with their families, with their own souls. We have seen the struggle of wanting to fit into a social construct. Each older son expects to receive the blessing to carry on the line of covenant. However, as the stories unfold, and we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of each son, we learn that perhaps the older boys are not cut out to fit that particular role. They have other strengths, other talents, that resound with different responsibilities. When Jacob shifts the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe, perhaps he is the first to recognize not only that their strengths and weaknesses fit opposite roles, but also that they are the first set of brothers to truly understand who they are in such a powerful way that they can accept the shift and not fight each other for a role that is not in consonant with their souls. Perhaps Jacob’s shift in the blessing gives them the permission to be who they really are.
We live in a world where there seem to be clear-cut tracks to follow. We want our kids to succeed in high school so they can get into the right college and find the right internship and get the highest paying job. We want them to look a certain way and perform according to society’s demands. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can’t. They read this difference in themselves as failure. And maybe we do too. It is hard to accept being different and outside the mold. It is painful. Excruciating.And so, they look for cures for this malady of their souls. When their souls don’t match the roles they are supposed to play in society, they often think they can soothe themselves with dangerous substances, substances that can lead to addiction. Harriet Rossetto, the founder of Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish faith-based addiction-recovery facility in Los Angeles, describes this as the struggle between role vs. soul.
How can we guide them to find their own unique path, one not imposed by outside expectations? Our Torah teaches us that struggle is essential to discovering who we are. It is not a failure of character. Torah also teaches us that in order to find shalom of the soul, we need to acknowledge that our souls may need different nourishment than what can be found in the roles we think we are supposed to play. The power to accept who we are takes courage, strength and love. Jacob teaches this through the painful lessons of his own life, his mistakes and his broken relationships. He learned that teshuva is possible, as he faced his own brother through fear and trembling and came out alive. He learned that parenting is hard and children don’t always live up to our expectations. He learned that perhaps he also didn’t live up to their expectations. So Jacob did it differently when it came to his grandsons. He blessed them for who they really were. And offered the blessing for Ephraim and Menashe to forever be the blessing for all of Israel, all of us. And this is truly a blessing. May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe, two souls who fought through the categories of society to accept their true selves and find inner peace. And let us say amen.
By Lisa Lisser
Lisa Lisser is a freelance Jewish educator focused on adult Jewish learners. She is also a board member of The T’Shuvah Center, a residential addiction recovery facility that will be opening in NYC next fall. The T’Shuvah Center offers a Jewish response to addiction. Lisa can be reached at [email protected]
Since the passing of her son Eric by suicide in 2016, Eta Levenson and her family founded the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope to fight the stigmatization of mental illness, raise awareness about mental health challenges and help prevent suicide. She can be reached at [email protected]