Parshas Vayechi brings us to the end of Sefer Bereishis as well as the end of Yaakov’s life. Yaakov prepares his children for the future by giving them blessings and guidance for the long galus ahead. Interestingly, while this parsha is full of brachos given to many people, none of them are for the actual people to which they are given! Every single bracha is for their descendants; but not even close ones, ones that haven’t even been born yet!
The first bracha given by Yaakov in the parsha is to Yosef’s two sons, Menashe and Efraim. Everyone knows the story of how Yaakov switched his hands, placing his right hand on Efraim and his left on Menashe, even though the former was the younger son. When Yosef sees this, he immediately tries to switch them back, when Yaakov informs him that this was intentional. Yaakov intended to recognize Efraim as the “first-born” son over Menashe, similar to what he did with Yosef among his own brothers. Yosef, obviously afraid of a repeat performance of what happened to him, disapproved; but Yaakov persisted.
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky is his sefer, Emes L’Yaakov, asks an interesting question. This was not the first time that Yaakov had placed Efraim before Menashe. Earlier in the parsha, Yaakov tells Yosef, “וְעַתָּ֡ה שְׁנֵֽי־בָנֶ֩יךָ֩ הַנּֽוֹלָדִ֨ים לְךָ֜ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם עַד־בֹּאִ֥י אֵלֶ֛יךָ מִצְרַ֖יְמָה לִי־הֵ֑ם אֶפְרַ֨יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי” “And now, your two sons that were born to you in the land of Egypt, before I came to Egypt, are mine. Efraim and Menashe are to me like Reuven and Shimon” (Bereishis 48:5). Yaakov said this before he gave them their bracha. How come Yosef didn’t get upset at Yaakov then for placing Efraim first?
The commonly given answer to this question is that Yosef didn’t see anything wrong with Yaakov saying Efraim before Menashe during a regular conversation. It was only when Yaakov was blessing them, with the same exact blessing to each one, that Yosef saw clearly what Yaakov was doing. Therefore, he immediately stepped in and asked Yaakov what was up.
R’ Yaakov says his own answer by first asking a question. This is the only recorded instance of Yaakov blessing his grandchildren. Why did Yaakov feel a need to bless Efraim and Menashe more than the rest of his descendants who were also about to spend centuries in exile? He explains that out of all the descendants of Yaakov, Efraim and Menashe were the only ones who had not lived in Eretz Yisrael and in the completely holy environment of Yaakov’s house. They had been born and bred in Mitzrayim, and while they had become tremendous tzaddikim, they still lacked the experience of residing in a completely holy atmosphere. Therefore, they needed the most chizuk in terms of their descendants surviving the exile in Mitzrayim; this is also why Yaakov says that he considers them like Reuven and Shimon, he needed to give them brachos as if they were his own sons in order to protect them from the galus. So Yaakov gave them a bracha by themselves, and relied on the brachos he gave the brothers to give chizuk to their children.
So why was Efraim placed before Menashe? If you look at the pesukim dealing with the naming of Efraim and Menashe, when Menashe was named, Yosef mentions the contrast between that time and when he was living at his father’s house. However, when Efraim was born, Yosef just mentions the success he had enjoyed in Egypt. Says R’ Yaakov, this shows that by the time Efraim was born, Yosef already had a stronger connection to Egyptian lifestyle and culture, and therefore, Efraim needed more protection from the galus. So Yaakov blessed him before Menashe.
Throughout these blessings as well as the conversations Yaakov has with Yosef and then with the rest of the brothers, there is a strong theme of Yaakov impressing upon them that this time in Mitzrayim will be galus. While also giving them hope that they will eventually leave there, even more so, he impresses upon them that they are not where they belong. Their proper place is in Eretz Yisrael.
Even with all the terrible things the Egyptians did to Bnei Yisrael and even with all the miracles Hashem performed for them, there were still many people who didn’t want to leave Mitzrayim. Chazal tell us that these people did not make it back to Eretz Yisrael and the true geulah, one way or another. B’ezrat Hashem, we will be redeemed soon; in the meantime, let us remember the lessons of this week’s parsha, and Yaakov Avinu’s warning to us (remember, the blessings he gave his sons for not for them, but for their descendants, us!) to remember our roots, where we truly belong, and where we can experience holiness of the highest level.
Chazak Chazak V’Nischazeik!
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