Parashay Vayehi- Efrayim and Menashe
We read in Parashat Vayehi the well-known story of the Beracha which Yaakob bestowed upon Efrayim and Menashe, Yosef’s two sons. When Yosef brought his sons before Yaakob to receive his blessing, he positioned Menashe, the older brother, to Yaakob’s right, and Efrayim, the younger brother, to the left. Yosef naturally anticipated that Yaakob would want to place his right hand – representing primacy – on the head of the older brother, and the left hand, which is viewed as subordinate to the right, on the head of the younger brother. Yaakob, however, switched his hands, placing his right hand on the younger brother, Efrayim. He explained to Yosef that Efrayim would exceed his older brother in stature, and therefore deserved to have the right hand placed on his head.
A number of commentators raised the question of why Yaakob did not simply ask his grandsons to change positions. Rather than inconveniencing himself by crossing his hands, he could have simply instructed Efrayim to stand to his right and Menashe to his left. Why did he decide to switch his hands?
The Noam Elimelech (Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, 1717-1786) suggested that Yaakob wanted to spare Menashe embarrassment. The brothers stood before Yaakob with their heads lowered, and thus would not know which hand rested on which head. By crossing his hands, Yaakob ensured to place his hands in the correct fashion without Menashe realizing that he was given the left hand despite his being the older brother. If Yaakob had asked the brothers to reposition, Menashe would have understood that he is being relegated to secondary status, and would have thus suffered embarrassment.
Rav Shimon Schwab (1908-1993) suggested a different explanation. Yosef represented an exceptional combination of spiritual greatness and worldliness. He was an outstanding scholar and Saddik, but at the same time, he was the consummate statesman. As second-in-command to Pharaoh, who ruled over the largest empire on earth at the time, Yosef sat in meetings with rulers and dignitaries and helped manage a large nation. He was both spiritual and worldly, a holy man and a man of the world.
This combination rarely exists in a single individual, and, indeed, in Yosef’s offspring, these two qualities were separated. Efrayim was the Torah scholar, and the Midrash relates that during the seventeen years Yaakob spent in Egypt, he studied Torah all day with Efrayim. Menashe, by contrast, served as his father’s assistant in managing the country’s affairs. He was deeply involved in the government and in economic and geopolitical affairs. Efrayim was the Torah scholar, and Menashe was the government official.
Efrayim and Menashe thus represent the two kinds of leadership that are needed in Am Yisrael: religious leadership, and lay leadership. Our nation’s primary leaders are the Rabbis, the scholars of Torah, but the Rabbis cannot do their jobs without a devoted and skilled team of lay communal leaders, people to support, organize and manage the community’s affairs. Both “Efrayim” and “Menashe” are critical and indispensable figures to the success of the Jewish people.
This, Rav Schwab explained, is why Yaakob decided to keep Menashe to his right, even though he placed his right hand on Efrayim’s head. He did not want to give the impression that Menashe, the lay leadership, is not significant. The point he wanted to convey is that Efrayim – Torah scholarship and Torah authority – must always be the primary component, as symbolized by the placement of his right hand on Efrayim. But even though Torah is of course the most critical and central aspect of Jewish life, the aspect of “Menashe,” the lay leadership, also bears great importance. The lay leaders must work under the guidance and authority of the Torah scholars; Menashe is, in this sense, secondary to Efrayim. But both groups of leaders are essential to the Jewish people’s mission of living as God’s nation on earth.
In the Yoreh De’a section of the Shulhan Aruch (246:1), Maran rules that each and every Jew bears an obligation to study Torah each day and night. He then adds, however, that if a person cannot study Torah, either because he does not know enough to even begin learning, or because of his schedule, he should support Torah scholars, and thereby fulfill his obligation with respect to Torah learning. This person will then receive reward as a result of the Torah learning which he facilitated.
This Halacha underscores the fact that all members of our nation, regardless of their background or skills, have a crucial role to play in the process of Torah. We need both Menashe and Efrayim – people who study Torah, and people who support Torah and work on behalf of Torah institutions. Together, they form the backbone of the Jewish people and help ensure our nation’s physical and spiritual survival.