But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.” — Genesis 48:19
This Torah portion for this week is Vayechi, which means “and he lived,” from Genesis 47:28–50:26, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 2:1–12.
In Jewish tradition, we bless our children on Friday nights just before we begin the Sabbath meal. We place our hands on top of each child’s head and bless him or her. The roots of this custom are found in this week’s Torah reading.
Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob in order to be blessed. Manasseh, the older brother, was placed on Jacob’s right side while Ephraim was placed at Jacob’s left. In Judaism, the right side was considered the stronger side, and by Joseph’s calculations, his older son deserved the greater blessing.
Surprisingly, Jacob crossed his hands and placed the stronger hand on Ephraim’s head. Thinking his father made a mistake, Joseph tried to correct him. However, Jacob explained, “He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he . . .”
Jacob foresaw that the younger son had more potential for greatness, and so he gave Ephraim the greater blessing.
The Jewish sages ask: If Ephraim naturally possessed what Manasseh lacked, then why not give Manasseh the greater blessing? It would seem that a person destined for greatness would need less help from blessings, while a less gifted person would need more help. While both Manasseh and Ephraim were destined to become great, Ephraim was on track to surpass his older brother. It would seem that giving Manasseh a stronger blessing would level the playing ground.
The sages explain that, in reality, the greater a person’s potential, the more they need blessings. This is because the greater a person’s ability, the greater their challenges will be. God wants each of us to reach our potential and become as great as we can possibly be, so He gives each person challenges that are appropriate for their level of capability and growth. Just as a teacher wouldn’t assign first-grade homework to a tenth grader, or vice versa, God doesn’t assign tasks or challenges that are more or less than a person can handle. Ephraim needed the greater blessing because his trials in life would be that much harder than those of his brother.
Sometimes, people make the mistake of thinking that their challenges in life are a signal that they aren’t destined for greatness. We believe that our negative character traits or sinful desires mean that we are doomed to failure.
However, the sages teach us that the opposite is true. The greater a person’s challenges, the greater is that person’s potential. We shouldn’t confuse our shortcomings with our destiny. Instead, we need to ask God for His blessings so that we can transform our challenges into our strengths and become the best people we can be.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President