In Parshat Vayechi – we find the following encounter. Yaakov (Jacob) is on his deathbed and his children and grandchildren come near to receive his last blessing.
Yosef (Joseph) – his beloved son – enters the room with his children: Menashe & Ephrayim. As was customary, he placed Menashe – the elder son, the bechor – near Yaakov’s right hand, signifying a place of honor. However – to Yosef’s surprise – Yaakov does something unexpected. He crosses his hands – placing his right hand on Ephrayim’s head and his left hand on Menashe’s head.
|יד וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל-רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם, וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר, וְאֶת-שְׂמֹאלוֹ, עַל-רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה: שִׂכֵּל, אֶת-יָדָיו, כִּי מְנַשֶּׁה, הַבְּכוֹר.
|14 And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head, who was the younger, and his left hand upon Menashe’s head, guiding his hands wittingly; for Menashe was the first-born.
Yosef was upset and tried to correct his father. But Yaakov insisted that he knew what he was doing. Not only was Yosef upset – a lot of the commentaries are bothered as well. Hadn’t Yaakov learned anything from the trials and travails that Yosef and his other sons went through? Didn’t he realize that favoritism does not work?
The Netziv, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin in his commentary on the Torah gives a beautiful and insightful answer to this conundrum that flips the whole scenario into a positive light.
Imagine yourself in the room and notice where the boys are standing vis-a-vis Yaakov, their grandfather. Yaakov has crossed his arms: Menashe is now standing near Yaakov’s left arm and his right leg. Ephrayim is now standing near Yaakov’s right arm and left leg.
The Netziv explains: Yaakov’s arms (on the top of his body) symbolize the spiritual strengths while his legs (on the bottom of his body) symbolize worldly matters. Yaakov understood that Ephrayim’s strengths lay in cerebral and spiritual matters while Menashe’s strengths lay in the natural world and “getting things done” on the ground.
This position is strengthened by the Midrash in Breishit Rabba 19 which describes Yosef’s right-hand man (הממונה על ביתו) and the one who carried out his word and “got things done” as his son Menashe.
What the Netziv is telling us is that Yaakov knew exactly what he was doing and in fact was very sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of his grandchildren.
We often quote the verse in Mishlei:
|ו חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַל-פִּי דַרְכּוֹ– גַּם כִּי-יַזְקִין, לֹא-יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.
|6 Train a child in his own [particular] path, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
- Shimshon Rafael Hirsch offers this commentary on Yaakov and his twin brother Eisav (Esau). He says that not following this path is the precise reason that the brothers developed so differently: Eisav being uncouth and wild while Yaakov was gentle and studious. R. Hirsch presents their parents – Yitzchak (Isaac) and Rivka (Rebecca) – as bringing them up in exactly the same manner, without noticing their vastly different temperaments and needs until their personalities were fully formed.
|מט:כח כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם–אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם.
|49:28 All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it what their father said to them and blessed them; he blessed each of them according to his [particular] blessing.
We would do well to follow Yaakov’s path. When raising our children and when teaching children we must ask ourselves about each and every one:
- Where do they shine?
- Where do they need help?
- What inspires them and what pulls them down?
The answers will guide us along the path to reach each heart and touch each precious soul.
Bracha Jaffe is her final year at Yeshivat Maharat and loving every part of becoming an Orthodox spiritual leader and rabbi. Teaching Torah and inspiring people to connect makes her heart sing. Other passions include working as a chaplain in a hospital setting and coaching people to a happier and more peaceful place in their lives.