Moses’ Veil

Last year on Parshat Ki Tisa I was in the hospital with my 2 day old daughter. I know Cantor Black led a conversation about the light emanating from Moses’ head and the veil he had to wear after he approached G-d in the Tent of Meeting. This year I want to give my take on this phenomenon.

We learn at the end of the portion that after Moses went down from Mount Sinai, “when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, the skin of his face sent forth beams, and they were afraid to come near him.”[1] Therefore, whenever Moses appeared before Israel he wore a veil on his face, blocking out the beams of light coming from his face after his encounter with G-d.[2]

As the Torah does not have any vowels or punctuation, there are at times different translations. The Hebrew word קרן (kuf-resh-nun) can be understood two different ways: either karan (beam of light), or keren (horn). This created the misinterpretation of Moses as being horned, unfortunately leading to many people believing that Jews have horns. It is also why the famous Michelangelo’s Moses in Rome depicts Moses as having horns. The problem with Moses having horns is why then would he need to wear a veil, a מסוה? A veil could block out light but one would still be able to see the horns protruding from Moses’ head.

The question I’m more interested in is why did Moses have any physical change in his appearance after his encounter with G-d? We have learned earlier in this portion that we cannot see G-d’s face, “for man may not see G-d and live.”[3] Yet even without seeing G-d’s face, by merely being in G-d’s presence at Sinai, Moses’ appearance is altered. Rabbi Ephraim of Luntshitz wrote in his book Kli Yakar that this was actually a symbol of Moses’ greatness in being able to get closer to G-d than any other person. The veil was only worn for Moses’ modesty because he was embarrassed that he received this great gift of radiant light. Before G-d, however, he had no need to be embarrassed so he was required to remove this veil of modesty.[4]

Naftili Tzvi Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, wrote in his book HaEmek D’var that it was actually a blessing to see Moses’ radiant face. The radiance represents the joy, the warmth and the uplifting nature of Moses’ light as the leader of the people of Israel.[5] The Israelites misunderstood the purpose of the radiance: it was to demonstrate G-d’s presence in the world, rather than to single out or embarrass Moses. Instead of being joyous, Israel became afraid by this supernatural emanation of godliness. As a result, the veil was needed.

How do we reconcile Moses’ humility with the fact that he alone had this close encounter with G-d? Rabbi Akiva Eger attempted to do so in his work Meeinah Shel Torah. He wrote that Moses had to go against his nature in order to lead the Israelites. On one hand Moses was “very humble, moreso than any person on the face of the earth.”[6] On the other hand, he was Israel’s intermediary with G-d. Moses therefore wore the veil when around the Israelites to lead the people. He had to mask his true nature of humility in order to effectively lead the Israelite nation. When it was just him and G-d, however, he removed the veil and once again had a humble appearance.

The lesson we should learn from Moses and the veil should be clear now that we just celebrated Purim. Purim above all else is a holiday of masks, where our heroine Esther’s name means להסתיר, to hide oneself, or to hide one’s true identity. To some degree in each of our lives we wear masks, obfuscating our true natures. When it is just us and G-d, however, the masks come off and our true selves are exposed. So it was with Moses our teacher. Through wearing a veil, Moses hid part of his innermost nature. I imagine the veil was opaque and thus people couldn’t see Moses face, and thus look into his eyes, into the depths of his soul. Moses could hide from Israel but when it was just him and G-d his true nature became exposed.

The same is true for us. Each of us hides part of ourselves in our everyday encounters, perhaps even in our relationships with others at the Jericho Jewish Center. We hold onto some of our cards, as we don’t want to expose our true selves, creating vulnerability. When it comes to our personal relationship with G-d, however, our true natures become revealed. I would ask each of us, when we feel safe to do so, to lower our veils a little bit, not to unmask our deepest, darkest secrets but rather to show that we’re human beings, each with similar needs and desires, and that we should not be ashamed of who we are or what we are feeling at any given moment. I would hope that we will not be afraid of our inner natures and that we will feel safe enough at the Jericho Jewish Center to lower the veil and embrace one another in accordance with our true natures. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may we have the willpower to do so.

[1] Exodus 34:30

[2] Exodus 34:33

[3] Exodus 34:30

[4] Kli Yakar, Exodus 34:33 ד”ה ויתן על פניו מסוה

[5] HaEmek Davar, Exodus 34:35, ד”ה כי קרן עור פני משה

[6] Numbers 12:3

The Meaning of the Mishkan

This is the time of the year when I generally start to see glazed-over eyes during the Torah reading.  For some reason, the Tabernacle, or mishkan, is not the most exciting topic for many, including me.  It seems so remote from our lives, and while an engineer or carpenter might find the details, dimensions and blueprints fascinating, others of us struggle while reading them.  Why so much detail as to each of the items in the Tabernacle?

Parshat Terumah begins by detailing the gifts: precious metals, animal skins and spices that the Israelites must give for the building of this sacred place. The first item described is an ark out of acacia wood, which was known to be a strong, durable form of wood. The ark needed to be overlaid with gold, have a cover made out of gold and have two cherubim angels-one overhanging it at each end. The ark would contain the Ten Commandments, given to Israel directly from G-d at Sinai. Our portion goes on to describe the table, altar, lampstand, curtain and the actual Tabernacle construction itself and its surrounding courtyard.

Why do we spend four or five weeks each and every year reading through this blueprint of our ancestors’ first sacred home for G-d? I would argue that we need to step back in time to the 1960s, when our sacred home, the Jericho Jewish Center, was first created. The first term used to describe the Tabernacle is not mishkan, or dwelling place, but rather mikdash, or sacred place.[1] The goal was to construct a place so ornate, so beautiful, so special, that it would be an appropriate home for G-d to dwell and to for G-d’s Shechinah, the most earthly part of the Divine, to descend from the heavens and rest here on earth. This was not some ordinary building but rather a place fit for the Master of the Universe to reside.

Each synagogue today is considered a mikdash m’at, a miniature sacred place. This does not mean that each synagogue is considered small in size or stature, rather that it contains a small portion of the sanctity and reverence  that was present in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. When both the First and Second Temples were destroyed and our people were scattered throughout the world, we needed a place to go to for connection with G-d, not to replace our holy site but as a substitute for the time we are in exile. Prayer replaced sacrifice as our primary means of communication with G-d and the local synagogue replaced the Temple as G-d’s home, the closest we could get to reaching G-d while here on earth.

We see clear evidence of this when comparing the construction of the Tabernacle to that of our synagogue. We have our Ark which like that of our ancestors holds our most sacred texts. Also, as in our portion we have two coverings for our ark: the kaporet, represented by our ark doors, and the parochet, the curtain inside the ark. In addition, we have a symbolic representation of both the Menorah and the Ner Tamid, an eternal light forever radiating G-d’s presence.

Finally I want to compare the Tabernacle to our Sanctuary. I want you to put yourselves in the mindset of those from your parents and grandparents’ generation who build this room in 1960. What steps do you think they took in constructing this sacred building which we call our spiritual home? How many hours were spent constructing blueprints and diagrams, making sure the layout was perfect? How do you think they felt in all the time from the first planning meeting in someone’s house to the groundbreaking ceremony upon construction of the building to the dedication of the Sanctuary? I imagine it was similar to what we experience every year in reading the Torah portions from Terumah all the way through VaYakhel-Pekudei.

I find it fascinating that our synagogue iconography is modeled after the Tabernacle. As we continue to read through the Torah in this month of March, let us take the opportunity to look deep into the messages of the portions and their significance in our lives.  When our eyes start to glaze over, let us notice something in our beautiful house of worship and may we connect it to the lore and the example of our ancestors, always asking ourselves “What does this mean?” and “How does this relate?”  Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Exodus 25:18

The Ketubah: Marriage as Commitment and Responsibility

If I were to ask you what is the most memorable part of a wedding ceremony, I doubt that most of you would have said the reading of the Ketubah. After all, it is in a language we no longer speak (Aramaic) and contains legal terminology, rather than the words of love. Certainly more memorable parts are the processional, the 7 circles, the giving of the rings, the Sheva Berachot, the breaking of the glass. However, the Ketubah is one of the few parts of the wedding ceremony that has its root in this very Torah portion.

In reading Parshat Mishpatim, we see so many of the basic laws necessary for society to function. While some do not appear to apply to us today, others are more relevant than ever. Two of them have to do with marriage. Exodus Chapter 22 Verse 15 put limits on a man taking a woman as his own. It states “he must make her his wife by payment of a bride-price.” The bride-price (מהר) is not specified here, but the rabbis made it at 200 zuz for a previously unmarried woman. While some are offended by this, as how can we put a price on a person, the way I interpret it is that betrothing someone requires providing something of value, the same way that men buy engagement rings today. By providing something of value, one demonstrates that marriage is not something to be taken lightly but rather a commitment and investment in one’s future. It also was a means to guarantee that women, who in biblical times were unable to make a living on their own, will have monetary protection in the event that the marriage is dissolved.

This is not the only source from our Torah portion that focuses on marriage. In Exodus Chapter 21 verse 10, it states that when a man marries a second time (a practice not allowed in Ashkenazi Judaism for over 1,000 years), he cannot withhold from his first wife ועונתה שארה כסותה, translated in our Chumash as food, clothing or conjugal rights. If he does not provide these three things, the wife can leave him. Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 47b states that שארה refers to maintenance, namely in a man providing sustenance for his wife. כסותה refers to clothing. עונתה is the most difficult of the terms to understand. The Talmud understands it as conjugal rights, but Ibn Ezra provides an opinion that it is referring to dwelling places.

Interestingly Mishnah Ketubot Chapter 5 puts the requirement of conjugal rights on both parties, stating that if the husband does not do so for his wife, he has to add to her Ketubah, whereas if the wife “rebels” against her husband money is subtracted from her Ketubah.

As we now live in a very different age, how do we relate to these sections from our portion? The Ketubah is not a legally binding document-it cannot be brought to a US court for payment of 200 zuz. More importantly, we view men and women as equal partners in a marriage, not as the husband needing to provide everything for his wife. The connection is not in what these texts say per se but rather in what they signify. The Ketubah states that in marriage there is obligation between husband and wife. It is not enough to say platitudes such as “We love each other unconditionally” or “I will be true to you forever.” Actions speak louder than words. Commitments entail responsibility on the part of both partners. To marry someone without providing for their needs is not truly a marriage according to our tradition.

Matthew and Dafna-my blessing for you as you approach your wedding is to remember to always provide for one another, physically, emotionally and spiritually as well as economically. I hope that you will remember to always show your affection to one another through actions that demonstrate your love and commitment. In doing so, may you be able to fulfill the blessing that we say every morning: שעשה לי כל צרכי, that all of your needs have been fulfilled. Mazal Tov on your upcoming wedding! May your love for one another cause your faces to radiate with joy each and every day as רעים אהובים, loving companions. In order to crystallize the happiness of reaching this occasion, I’d like to ask us to turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

Truly Hearing Others


We are a people who believes in hearkening, or listening,[2] but only when it leads to action. After all, the phrase that has been called by some “the watchword of our faith,” the last words one is supposed to say every day and at the end of one’s life, is שמע ישראל, “Hear O Israel.” However, it is not enough to merely hearken; rather we need to translate that listening into action, as demonstrated by the ואהבת, which illustrates all the ways we must communicate our knowledge of G-d to future generations. After all, one of the reasons our people was chosen to receive the Torah is because we said נעשה ונשמע,[3] that doing is primary before listening.[4]

The first chapter of Parshat Yitro centers on this theme of hearkening. It begins וישמע יתרו, Yitro heard of all that G-d had done for Moses.[5] Yitro praises the Adonai, the G-d of the Israelites, for saving Israel from the hand of Pharaoh, saying that He is greater than all other gods. Afterwards, he notices Moses’ behavior in being the sole judge and jury of all of Israel. Yitro advises him to appoint other judges so that Moses does not get burnt out. After giving this advice, the text reads וישמע משה לקול חתנו, Moses hearkened to the voice of his father-in-law.[6]

The commentators raise two central questions regarding this passage: why didn’t Moses think of Yitro’s approach on his own and why did the advice come from Yitro rather than directly from G-d? Toledot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo, asserts that Moses thought of delegating but wanted it to come from a disinterested third party. Why? So the Israelites would not think that Moses was shirking his responsibilities![7] When someone does more that his/her fair share, it can be taken for granted, or worse, it can become public perception that this is part of his/her job description. So that it did not appear that Moses was “cutting back,” leading the rumor mills to start, it was best that a foreigner make the suggestion.

Ralbag, or Gersonides, has a very different answer. He asserts that Moses, as great a teacher as he was, did not think of delegating the judiciary. Only after hearing Yitro’s advice did he recognize that Yitro’s approach was better, and he followed it.[8] As great as Moses was, he did not have all the answers, and he acknowledged that Yitro was correct. The mark of a great leader is to know when to take hold of the advice of others versus when to disregard it; in this case, Moses recognized the benefit from Yitro’s advice, and he took hold of it.

The second question, as to why the advice came directly from Yitro rather than from G-d, is of interest to commentators, especially as the verse concludes ויעש כל אשר אמר, that Moses did everything that Yitro said.[9] This is often the language used to demonstrate obedience to G-d’s command, yet here it is being used to demonstrate that Moses took Yitro’s advice! Tzror HaMor comments that the words of Yitro really came from G-d. Why then didn’t G-d tell Moses directly? So that the Israelites would be aware of Yitro’s wisdom and that for this reason Moses married his daughter.[10] In the traditional Mi Sheberach for a baby naming, we pray that the baby girl marries a Torah scholar; here we show that Yitro, while not a Torah scholar, was not a נאך-שלעפער noch-shlepper, but rather a man of wisdom like Moses.

Or HaHayim goes one step further, asserting that G-d wanted to show Israel that there are among non-Jews great giants of understanding and insight.[11] Our tradition has always mentioned that there are non-Jews of great knowledge and abilities. There is even a blessing for an outstanding secular scholar, ברוך…שנתן מחכמתו לבשר ואדם, blessed is G-d who has given of His knowledge to human beings.[12]

Two lessons come to mind from Yitro hearkening to G-d followed by Moses hearkening to Yitro. The first is that true listening leads to changed behavior. If someone gives us worthwhile advice and we listen to it but don’t change our behavior, it has made no impact on us. The words come into one ear and go out the other. If, on the other hand, we listen carefully to what they’re saying, discern it for deeper truths, and make a change in our lives for our betterment, we have truly heard them.

The second lesson is that we can find words of wisdom from everyone, whether Jewish or not. As a rabbi, I would argue that we should first turn to the great wealth of our tradition, the words of the Torah, the Talmud and the great rabbis. However, that does not mean that we cannot find similar pearls of wisdom from non-Jewish sources. Plus who knows-maybe G-d is communicating to us through this non-traditional medium as well.

Let us strive this week to actually listen to the words given by the people who we encounter and determine if they have merit. In the end we might choose to disregard them, but at least we should hearken to them with both ears open and with serious intention. May we truly hearken to the words of others and take their advice whenever practical and helpful.

[1] From School of Rock’s If Only You Would Listen

[2] For this sermon I will use the two words synonymously

[3] Exodus 24:7

[4] Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Section HaHodesh, Chapter 5.

[5] Exodus 19:1

[6] Exodus 18:24

[7] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 18:21 ואתה תחזה מכל העם אנשי חיל…

[8] Ralbag on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה…התועלת הי”ד

[9] Exodus 18:24

[10] Tzror Hamor on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[11] Or HAHayim on Exodus 18:24 וישמע משה

[12] Found in The Complete Artscroll Siddur, Page 236.

The Power of Tefillan


Usually on Shabbat I talk about something practical to everyday life. However, today I want to discuss something that is not used on Shabbat but rather during the week: Tefillan. Tefillan represent the power of our covenantal relationship with G-d. When we bind them on our hands and put them on our forehead, we demonstrate that we are accepting the responsibility of fulfilling the commandments and of being G-d’s emissaries in the world.

Why don’t we wear Tefillan on Shabbat? Because they are described as a sign, (an אות) of G-d’s presence.[1] During the week, when weget preoccupied with our jobs or our regular schedules, we need this sign to center us and keep us on the proper path. However, on Shabbat, when we cease from working and enjoy festive prayer services and meals with our families, we do not need that outward sign, and so therefore we refrain from wearing Tefillan.

The Tefillan contains four passages from the Torah, which if you want to study them in greater detail you are welcome to attend the World Wide Wrap tomorrow morning at 9:00 am. The latter two passages are in what we now consider to be the שמע: the ואהבת (about loving G-d and teaching our children the commandments) and והיה אם שמוע (about fulfilling G-d’s commands so that we have rain in its proper season). The former two come from this morning’s parsha, where we first learn that Tefillan is worn as connected with our ancestors’ being redeemed from Egypt. Because they were saved by G-d, they (and we) are required to eat unleavened bread for seven days as well as redeem our firstborn children and animals.

There’s an additional aspect to Tefillan, however; the covenantal relationship between the people of Israel and G-d. We as Israel need a daily reminder to follow the commandments, but G-d also needs a reminder about the unique nature of the children of Israel. In Talmud Berachot[2], the rabbis ask “What’s inside G-d’s tefillan?” and the answer is the verse מי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ; “Who is like the people Israel, a unique nation on earth.”[3] G-d also needs a reminder of the special nature of our people: that we were the only people who agreed to accept His commandments.[4]

The relationship between G-d and Israel is highlighted every morning when we do the last three wraps on the arm Tefillan. We recite a special phrase from Isaiah: וארשתיך לי לעולם, וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים, וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ה; “I will betroth you to me forever, I will betroth you to me in justice and righteousness, lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know G-d.”[5] Every morning, we reaffirm our covenant with G-d to be better people, devoting ourselves to doing acts of lovingkindness while concurrently incorporating Jewish rituals such as prayer, kashrut and Shabbat into our lives. At the same time, we recognize that we are unique and should take pride in who we are and what we contribute to the world. G-d is with us, guiding us on how to make our lives better each and every day.

The wearing of Tefillan bolsters our faith in G-d and in our work as the Jewish people. I encourage anyone here who has not put on Tefillan to do so tomorrow morning at minyan. We have plenty of extra sets in the Beit Midrash for you to use. With Tefillan, we reenact our betrothal to G-d every morning, demonstrating our devotion and faith to Judaism. Through saying the passage from Hosea, we betroth ourselves to G-d anew each and every morning. In a similar vein, we have a betrothed couple, Justin and Rachel, who will be getting married next weekend. Under the Huppah, there will be a betrothal ceremony with an exchange of rings. In addition to this, I always like to encourage couples to write their own betrothals (or if you want to call them, vows) to one another: what you love about your partner and how you will devote yourself to your partner in marriage. Write it up, let the other know after the ceremony, and refer back to it on a regular basis after the wedding. This way your dedication to your partner will always remain on the forefront of your mind, just as the words inside the Tefillan reposition G-d to the center of our lives.

Mazal Tov, Justin and Rachel, on your Aufruf and upcoming marriage. To crystallize our happiness for you through words, I ask that we turn to Page 838 and continue responsively.

[1] Exodus 13:9

[2] Berachot 6a

[3] 2 Samuel 7:23

[4] See Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael Chapter 5

[5] Hosea 2:21

Moses’ Special Nature

What is it about Moses that makes him the one able to lead the Israelites out of slavery? Certainly he does not think that he did anything worthy of this honor. After all, Moses asserts, מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בני ישראל ממצרים; “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”[1] Moses denies G-d’s demand that he go not one, not twice, not thrice but four times, until G-d, aggrieved, says gezunta heyt געזונט הייט– GO ALREADY!

However, when Moses first goes before Pharaoh with his brother Aaron serving as intermediary, not only does Pharaoh not listen to him but he also makes the Israelites do the same work without receiving straw, The Israelite foremen say to Moses and Aaron, “May G-d punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers לתת חרב בהרגנו; putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”[2] Moses, dejected, cries out to Hashem “Why did you bring harm upon this people? למה זה שלחתני; why did you send me?”[3] In other words he’s saying ‘I was right to have misgivings; I’m not cut out for this job.’

Like every parsha, ours needs to end on a positive note, and it does with G-d telling Moses ‘wait and see what I will do to punish Pharaoh.’ However, it does not answer our question of the day: why was Moses chosen? What makes him the one worthy of being our greatest prophet ever?

The best answer I have seen to this comes from the Toldot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo,[4] the uncle of Rabbi Joseph Karo of Shulchan Arukh fame. Rabbi Karo points out that in Moses asked G-d “When I come to Israel and say to them ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them.”[5] Unlike any Jewish leader before him, Moses asks G-d what his name is. At the time he gets a cryptic answer, אהיה אשר אהיה, “I will be what I will be.”[6] However, G-d was impressed that Moses asked about His identity, so much so that at the beginning of Parshat VaEra, which we read next week, he tells Moses that he is the only one who received knowledge of G-d’s great name Adonai; the other patriarchs only received direct knowledge of the name El Shaddai (אל שדי)[7].

Toledot Yitzhak comments that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all took for granted that G-d created the world. As such, they only merited getting to know G-d as El Shaddai, as that name means that G-d (אל) is the one who said to the world “Dai!” (די) “Enough!” resulting in the world’s creation. In contrast, the name Adonai is connected to the language of being, that G-d caused the world to come into being through creation. G-d wanted to show the children of Israel that He created the world, and he used Moses as his intermediary, turning a staff into a snake, turning water into blood and engaging in all of the ten plagues.[8]

How does all this relate to us? The central נפקא מינא, or practical application, that I would draw from this text is the importance of asking questions. Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic text referred to as Ethics of the Fathers, teaches us אין הבישן לומד, that one who is embarrassed to ask a question does not learn.[9] On one hand we can look at Moses as having great chutzpah, as he is not accepting G-d’s demand that he lead Israel at the first moment but rather asking questions and saying he is unworthy of such a task. Rabbenu Bahya’s interpretation goes in accordance with that, asserting that Moses should know better than to question G-d.[10] However, I prefer the view that we should follow Moses’ example and have the audacity to ask questions, even to G-d Himself! I strive to follow the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question; that we always need to inquire as to the deeper truths and meanings of life. Moses went one step beyond Abraham, not just uprooting his life in going to a new land but asking questions and challenging until he recognized that this was the proper path for him to take. May we do the same thing when we face challenges and potentially life altering decisions; may we never be afraid to ask the questions that we need in order to arrive at the correct answers.

[1] Exodus 3:11

[2] Exodus 5:21

[3] Exodus 5:22

[4] Rabbi Isaac Karo lived from 1458-1535 in Toledo, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Israel.

[5] Exodus 3:13

[6] Exodus 3:14

[7] Exodus 6:3

[8] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

[9] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[10] Rabbenu Bahya on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

Switching Hands

Have you ever had a deja vous moment, where you think “this sounds familiar”? Where you ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this again? I thought I knew better!’” Such is what I think when I read this week’s portion about the blessings given to Ephraim and Manasseh.

As Jacob lies on his deathbed, Joseph brings his children, Ephraim and Manasseh, to receive a blessing. Manasseh is supposed to receive the special blessing from Jacob, as he was first-born. However, Jacob flips his hands, putting his right hand on the younger brother, Ephraim. After the blessing is given, Joseph protests this act, but Jacob’s reply is “the younger brother shall be greater.”

This sounds like Jacob getting the last laugh, once again not going in accordance with the birth order. Why would he do it? Didn’t he learn from last time that stealing a blessing could be a matter of life and death? Perhaps Jacob had learned from his past, as the dispute over birthright does not occur here. In fact, there is no textual evidence that Manasseh and Ephraim ever fought one another ever. Hence the rabbis instituted that we should bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Manasseh, which we do every Friday evening.[1]

Chaim ibn Attar, an 18th century Moroccan and Israeli commentator, wrote in his book Or HaChaim that like his father Isaac, Jacob was hard of seeing at the end of his life. Even without seeing he knew that the older son would be on the right-hand side. However, he had intuition that Ephraim would be greater, and he went with his gut.  His intuition turned out to be correct, as the land of Ephraim became the central location for the Kingdom of Israel.

Ephraim of Luntshitz, the 16th century Polish commentator referred to by the name of his book, Kli Yakar, questioned why Joseph waited until after the blessing was given to protest. He posited that perhaps Joseph thought that the left side was actually the preferred side, because our heart, which for the rabbis was the seat of one’s intellect, is located on the left side, as opposed to desire, which is on the right side. Joseph thought that Manasseh was going to receive a blessing of intellect, whereas Ephraim would get a blessing of physicality. When Jacob gave the same blessing to both boys, Joseph recognized his mistake and that Ephraim got preferential treatment with the right hand.

Does it really matter which way the sons were blessed? We should be focused on the fact that both boys were blessed, not on which was blessed with which hand. After all, this is certainly unfair to lefties! The message from Jacob switching his hands, however, means more than just the hands themselves. It means that one’s blessing is not determined by the order in which s/he was born but by his/her actions in life in order to merit blessing.

From the Torah itself, we see that the firstborn never receives the greatest blessing. Ishmael was exiled whereas Isaac became the heir. Jacob received the greater blessing and Esau went off on his own. Joseph, the 12th son, was favorited, and in this week’s portion Judah, the 3rd son, received the greatest blessing. This pattern continues with Ephraim and Manasseh. What one does with his/her life, as opposed to his/her birth order, is what brings blessing.

There’s a story mentioned in the book Freakonomics[2] about the two brothers Lane: one was named Winner and the other named Loser. Winner Lane goes through life thinking himself above the law, and he winds up getting arrested and thrown into jail. Loser Lane, on the other hand, becomes a police officer and a detective. Winner received the blessing of a good name, yet the outcome was he ended up being a loser, whereas loser became a winner. This further proves that it’s not just about what one is named, or the family s/he is born into, life, but rather what one does with the life that s/he is given. Perhaps the order of blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh does not matter-what mattered was what they and their descendants did with the blessing.

As we begin a secular new year, let us examine how we can live a life that is truly blessed, with all the gifts that God has given us. May we us not focus on sibling or family rivalries or favoritism, but rather on what we can do to live a life filled with meaning and blessing each and every day. In doing so, may we follow the example of Manasseh, who did not complain upon receiving the “left hand” but rather got along along with his brother Ephraim. Let us each do our best to live in accordance with his example.

[1] See note to Genesis 48:20, bottom of Page 297 in Etz Hayim Humash

[2] Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York City: Harper Collins, 2009).