We have spoken in previous years about the census conducted in this week’s parshah, Parshas Bamidbar. This census, from which the Sefer takes its’ English name-Numbers, was the third one conducted since Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim. The practical purpose of this census was to set up the positions Bnei Yisrael would take around the Mishkan on their travels through the desert on their way to Eretz Yisrael. Each tribe was counted separately and then divided into groups of three with each group assigned one of the four sides of the camp to travel on and make camp.
“לִבְנֵי יוֹסֵף לִבְנֵי אֶפְרַיִם תּוֹלְדֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם” “Of the children of Yosef: of the children of Efraim, their descendants according to their families” (Bamidbar 1:32). Each one of the pesukim that count the tribes starts the same way with the word “לִבְנֵי”. By the children of Yosef, however, it works a little differently. Yosef’s children made up two of the twelve tribes due to a blessing given to them by Yaakov back in Parshas Vayechi. As such, the pasuk introduces Yosef as an introduction to his children’s tribes with the word “לִבְנֵי”. The Baal Haturim asks, how come the pasuk needs to repeat “לִבְנֵי” before Efraim’s and Menashe’s names as well? The pasuk has already introduced the tribes of Efraim and Menashe as Yosef’s sons!
He answers based on a famous medrash that when Yaakov died, he commanded his sons to take specific positions around his body when they carried it to Eretz Yisrael. These positions that they took on the four sides of the body became the same positions their tribes traveled on in the desert. However, Yaakov did not allow Yosef to carry the body as it was below his dignity as the king of Mitzrayim. Instead, his son, Efraim, took his place. (His son, Menashe, took Levi’s place. Levi was not allowed to carry the body as well due to the honor afforded him by his descendant’s future position as the Kohanim and Levi’im-also discussed in this week’s parshah.) Therefore, says the Baal Haturim, the pasuk is required to re-introduce Efraim and Menashe, so to speak, when their tribes are counted.
Another famous discussion found here is the fact that Efraim’s tribe was counted before Menashe’s even though Efraim was the younger son. As we know from Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov gave Efraim the tribe of Yosef’s first-born rights over Menashe. Those rights include his being mentioned first in the Torah. This is generally the explanation given as to why Efraim’s tribe is counted first. The Ramban points out, however, that in the next census, Menashe is mentioned before Efraim! He explains that in terms of having their names mentioned first by the census, it does not have to do with the firstborn rights, but rather to do with which tribe had the greater population. At this point, Efraim had the bigger population, so he is listed first. Later on, Menashe has the bigger population, so he is listed first.