Parashat Vayehi: Learning and Performing
We read in Parashat Vayehi of the blessings Yaakov Abinu conferred upon Yosef’s two sons, Efrayim and Menashe. Yosef brought his sons to Yaakob, positioning the older son, Menashe, to Yaakob’s right, figuring that Yaakob would place his right hand over Menashe’s head while giving the blessing, symbolizing his status of prominence as the firstborn. Yaakob, however, crossed his hands, placing his right hand on the hand of the younger brother, Efrayim, and placing his left hand on the older son, Menashe. Yosef began lifting Yaakob’s hands in order to rearrange them, but Yaakob refused, insisting that the hands were placed correctly.
What is the meaning behind this "argument" between Yaakob and Yosef, and what lesson does it convey?
Torah life requires two general commitments: learning, and performing. We are to make time to study Torah, and we must also put the laws and values we learn into practice, by observing all the Misvot. The Talmud Yerushalmi comments that if one only learns Torah, without any intention of practicing what he learns, then it would have been preferable for him to have died at childbirth. The explanation of this comment is that, as our Sages teach us elsewhere, a fetus studies the Torah with an angel when it is in the womb. A person does not need to come into this world to learn Torah; he does that already before he is born. We are brought into this world so we can not only learn, but also perform the Misvot. And thus if a person learns Torah without intending to observe it, there was no need for him to exit the womb, as the entire purpose of entering this world is for us to practice the Torah, in addition to studying it.
The Gemara in Masechet Kiddushin (40) tells that the Rabbis convened to address the fundamental question of which of these two lifelong pursuits is greater: studying, or performing. The conclusion, the Gemara says, was that "learning is greater, because learning brings one to perform." Since learning is indispensable for performing the Misvot – after all, one cannot know how to perform the Misvot without learning about them – learning is considered greater. The clear implication of the Gemara’s comment, as the commentators have noted, is that fundamentally, performing the Misvot is greater than learning, but in practice, learning must come first, as learning is an indispensable prerequisite for performing. As mentioned earlier, we have come into this world for the sake of practicing the Torah; this is the objective. In terms of sequence, however, we must first allocate time for learning, for otherwise we will be unable to perform.
With this background, we can understand the different perspectives of Yaakob and Yosef. Our Sages tell us that Menashe helped Yosef manage his affairs as the Egyptian vizier. Menashe was a man of action, working alongside his father in governing Egypt. Efrayim, meanwhile, was a scholar, devoted to Torah study, who learned together with his grandfather, Yaakob, after Yaakob came to live in Egypt. Yosef felt that Yaakob’s right hand, symbolizing primacy, should be placed upon Menashe. As our goal and objective must be performing Misvot and getting involved to help the world, Menashe, the symbol of action, should be shown priority. Yaakob, however, wanted to emphasize that as a matter of practical sequence, Efrayim – the symbol of learning – must precede Menashe. While it is true that action fundamentally is of greater importance than learning, we must give learning primacy when arranging our priorities, as it is a necessary prerequisite for performing the Misvot.
After proclaiming the blessings, Yaakob informed Yosef that future generations of Jews would bless their children by wishing them, "Hashem shall make you like Efrayim and Menashe," placing Efrayim before Menashe. Yaakob here established that when parents educate their children, they must give precedence to "Efrayim," to study, as it is only through study that their children can achieve the end goal, which is "Menashe" – action.
This insight underscores the vital importance of setting aside time for serious engagement in Torah study, and also teaches us the proper mindset with which we must approach our study. The ultimate purpose of study is "Ma’aseh," to apply what we learn. We are to approach learning with an open mind, understanding that we are going to encounter concepts with which we had been unfamiliar, and which we will then have to apply to our lives. Part of the process of learning is the commitment to make the life changes that are necessary to put our newfound knowledge into practice. When we study with this mindset, we then fulfill Yaakob’s blessing, and live up to his ideal of combining "Efrayim" and "Menashe" – study with observance.