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).

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