The Blessing of Ephraim and Menashe: A Spiritual GPS
He blessed them that day saying, “Israel will bless through you saying,
‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe.’” (Bereishis 48:20)
Irony of ironies. This special blessing which is repeated week after week by
so many families as they bless their sons on Friday night and Erev Yom
Kippur, is amazing. It is amazing because, of all the many children and
grandchildren that Ya’akov Avinu had to choose from as role models for
Jewish children until the end of history as we know it, he chose the only
two that had been born outside of the Land of Israel.
On one hand, it could have been because they were the sons of his favorite
son, Yosef, whom had almost been lost forever. But on the other hand, even
were that so, Ya’akov Avinu could still only choose a role model based upon
attributes, for his own good, and the good of the future of all of his
If so, then what was it specifically about Ephraim and Menashe that caught
Ya’akov’s attention that they became the symbol of blessing for the Jewish
people? And, if the answer is not apparent from this week’s parshah, perhaps
it is more apparent from what we learn about Ephraim and Menashe later on in
Two specific episodes come to mind, one in the Torah itself, and one in the
Midrash. We are told that the descendants of Ephraim were the first to leave
Egypt. In fact they left 30 years too early, and as a result, were attacked
and killed along the way. They never made it to Eretz Yisroel at that time,
but then again, neither did the generation that left Egypt with Moshe
Rabbeinu on time.
Indeed, Bnei Ephraim were the ones that the prophet Yechezkel brought back
to life in the Valley of Dry Bones. And once brought back to life, they made
aliyah and raised families there, unlike the Jews who died in the desert
following Moshe Rabbeinu to the Promised Land. It may have been their
tremendous yearning to live in Eretz Yisroel that resulted in their early
deaths, but it was probably also the reason for their reincarnation and
second chance to live in the Holy Land.
Likewise, it was the daughters of Tzelofchad, descendants of Menashe, whose
intense love of Eretz Yisroel resulted in their being mentioned in the Torah
by name (more than once), a great honor to be sure. And, it also resulted in
the introduction of an important law in their names regarding the laws of
inheritance, an even greater merit.
As Rashi points out there, we shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, they
were descendants of Yosef, whose love of Eretz Yisroel is legendary, perhaps
because he spent most of his life away from it. In fact, out of 110 years of
life, Yosef only lived on the land between the ages of 8 and 17, nine years
altogether, not a lot of time. How does one develop such a love of a land if
they spend so little time living there?
In everyday language, we call it a personality type. You see that some
people seem to have a ‘natural’ appreciation of Eretz Yisroel, which results
in a natural love of the land. However, behind every personality type is a
soul-type, and that has a lot, actually almost everything to do with the way
we relate to things in life.
Yosef was the attribute of Yesod. Literally, Yesod means ‘foundation,’ and
there is a reason for that. But, for the sake of this essay, the main thing
to understand about the attribute of Yesod is its role in the system of
things. Indeed, understanding the role of Yesod is crucial for increasing
blessing in one’s life.
The Zohar compares Yesod to a flowing river, and says that it is responsible
for shalom in the world. Indeed, the Zohar says, Yesod is the attribute of
peace, which is why the Talmud (Brochos 56b) says that anyone who has a
dream of a river will likely see peace in life (Zohar, 1:193b). Hence, the
dream that Yosef interpreted for Pharaoh included a river, and Yosef spoke
about the ‘peace of Pharaoh.”
Therefore, in spite of the fact that Yosef’s brothers hated him, Ya’akov
Avinu, who was aware of this, sent Yosef to check on the shalom of his
brothers who were tending their sheep in Shechem at the time. Without
shalom, the brothers could not carry on the rectification that began with
the Forefathers, and the only one capable of bringing shalom was Yosef, the
representative of the trait of Yesod and shalom.
As the rabbis explain, the Hebrew word for ‘blessing’ is brochah, from the
word breichah, which is a spring of water. This indicates that blessing is
the result of a flow of Divine light from the world above to the world in
which we live, something that seemed to happen everywhere Yosef went. Hence,
even his master couldn’t help but recognize how God blessed everything Yosef
Does Yesod create the flow of light? No. Kabbalah explains that the flow of
Divine light is always there, just waiting to come down into our world and
bless us with good. However, without a faucet, how can the water go from the
sealed pipe in the wall to the shiny new basin that awaits it? Likewise,
without Yesod to connect the upper eight sefiros with the final one, the
Malchus, which corresponds to the world in which we live, how can the Divine
light flow to us in abundance?
The Arizal explains in Sha’ar HaGilgulim that the best teachers of Torah
usually function in the role of Yesod. This means that they have opened
themselves up as a vehicle to receive Divine light, and to pass it on to
those whom they are teaching. For, the knowledge they give over is Divine
light that also requires a spiritual ‘faucet’ through which to pour into the
world of man.
That is why, like it or not, it was Yosef’s responsibility to feed everyone,
including his own father and brothers. They all had different talents and
responsibilities, but Yosef was the trait of Yesod, and therefore, the
Divinely-ordained conduit through which the blessing of sustenance was
destined to flow. And, this is why he was a great educator as well.
Hence, Yosef was a great source of chayn, and people swarmed to be in his
presence. Like thirsty people around a single ‘faucet,’ they came to drink
from the well-spring of Divine light that could only result in additional
blessing in life. And, nothing reveals chayn more than when the light of God
passes through a person in an obvious way.
Eretz Yisroel functions in the same way. Kabbalah explains that there is
only one opening to Heaven, and it is over Eretz Yisroel, mirroring its
borders, something that Ya’akov Avinu’s dream revealed to him, and us. The
Divine light that blesses the world descends over Eretz Yisroel only, and
especially over the Western Wall, before going out to the rest of the world
(Tuv HaAretz; Sha’arei Leshem).
But we are not simply talking about increasing one’s blessing in life, but
about increasing one’s connection to the Divine Presence, because they are
one and the same thing. This is why Yosef longed to live in Eretz Yisroel,
and insisted on being buried there, especially in Shechem. In Eretz Yisroel,
he could increase his capacity to act in the role of Yesod, and therefore
enhance his ability to draw light down into the world, and increase his
connection to the Shechinah—the Divine Presence.
And, since Yesod acts in the same way that Eretz Yisroel does, it is an
especially important quality to have while living in the Diaspora. For, it
allows a person to do a remarkable thing: to spiritually stretch the borders
of Eretz Yisroel to wherever they may be. Hence, though the person may have
the physical status of being in the Diaspora, spiritually e may have the
status of actually still being in Eretz Yisroel.
This is what happened to Ya’akov Avinu when he fled Eisav and lived with
Lavan for 22 years. His love for Eretz Yisroel, evident in last week’s
parshah, meant that God allowed some of the kedushah to envelope him while
he lived away from the land, since doing so, at that time, had clearly been
the will of God. This is what allowed the Shechinah to remain with him even
while living in such a profane place with such a person as Lavan.
It is also what protected Ya’akov Avinu all those years from the
machinations of Lavan until remaining there ceased to serve any purpose of
God’s. Once Ya’akov Avinu had fulfilled in exile all that he had been sent
there to achieve, he headed home once again, taking with him the spiritual
reality of Eretz Yisroel until he was finally able to cross the actual
physical border and allow his physical reality to match his spiritual one.
Being a true disciple of his father, and being rooted in Yesod as well, this
was a trait that Yosef had mastered. Hence, even though he had physically
lived in Egypt, he had managed, in such an impure place, to live,
spiritually-speaking, in Eretz Yisroel. For that reason, he longed to live
there physically as well, something that was not only not lost on his two
sons, but was given over to them, even though they had never lived in Eretz
Hence, Ephraim and Menashe represent the Jewish people’s ability to not lose
our way as we travel through the darkness of exile. Therefore, when we bless
our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, something that we learn from Bnos
Tzelofchad and the women of Moshe Rabbeinu’s time is not confined to the
male element of the nation, we are giving over to them a spiritual GPS. We
are blessing them with an ability to never get lost as Jews, something that
happen even should they continue to keep Torah and perform mitzvos.
“But,” you may ask, “is that not redundant?” Not really. Keeping Torah and
doing the mitzvos is one thing. But, remaining focused on the long term
goals of the Jewish nation, and trying to fulfill them is something else.
This is why, even for those who learn Torah and perform the mitzvos, it is
possible to stay too long in exile, and suffer the consequences of doing so.
We have so many times already.
As the Maharal points out in his explanation of the Haggadah, one of the
main messages of the matzah, which is called ‘Poor Man’s Bread,’ is to live
like a poor man, at least inasmuch as we don’t become overly attached to our
physical possessions, particularly the land we own in the Diaspora. Every
time we have been, we failed to leave exile on time in spite of the warning
signs to do so.
Not Ya’akov Avinu, though. When the time came to go, no matter how rooted he
had become in the Diaspora, he left immediately. And, so would have Yosef,
given the chance, not to mention Ephraim and Menashe. And, hopefully us,
b”H, if and when the time comes to move on because the exile has clearly
come to an end.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.