An Eternal Blessing
Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
In this parashah, Jacob, on his deathbed, blesses all his children, assigns them their unique missions, and also chastises them for their failings. He singles out, however, two of his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph, and adopts them as his own: "And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before my coming to you in Egypt shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be like Reuben and Simeon."
Additionally, Jacob gives the two lads a special blessing and proclaims "By you shall Israel bless, saying 'May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.' "
At first glance, this elevation of Ephraim and Manasseh is somewhat puzzling, but there is a deep teaching therein. These two boys grew up in Egypt, in a land that was renowned for its immorality, corruption, and decadence. Moreover, they grew up in the opulence and luxury of the palace and, more significantly, they were the only Jewish children in the land of Egypt. And yet, despite it all, their commitment and faith in God remained unwavering and they were as dedicated to Judaism as the sons of Jacob were.
This, in and of itself, is a phenomenal feat, for usually, with the passage of each generation, there is a spiritual downturn, as each generation becomes one step further removed from its source. But Ephraim and Manasseh reversed that process. They linked themselves to the previous generation as though they had been born to be Tribal Patriarchs. Thus they defied the odds and reached beyond the spiritual level into which they had been born.
Now we can more readily understand the blessing which Jacob proclaimed, "By you shall Israel bless, saying, "May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh," for even as Ephraim and Manasseh withstood the ultimate test and were able to maintain their high standard of faith in a hostile environment, so too, to this very day, all Jewish parents pray that no matter where destiny may take their children, they will remain staunch, loyal Jews, upholding Torah and mitzvot. Therefore, on the eve of the Sabbath and on the eve of Yom Kippur, parents pronounce the ancient words of Jacob and bless their children with these immortal words: "May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh."
There is yet another reason why Ephraim and Manasseh were chosen to be the ultimate role models for our children. They were free of jealousy and arrogance and rejoiced in each other's attributes and success, as we see that Manasseh did not complain that Ephraim, the younger brother, was mentioned first and received the blessing of the right hand.
The Shabbos on which we conclude the reading of the portions of the Book of Genesis, the first of the Five Books of the Torah, is referred to as Shabbos Chazak – the Sabbath of Strength. This is because, as we conclude the Book of Genesis, the entire congregation rises and proclaims, "Chazak, Chazak, V'Nis'chazeik – Be Strong! Be Strong! And may we be strengthened!" We ask the Almighty to give us the strength to continue with and succeed in our Torah studies.
At first glance it may appear strange that we extend wishes for strength at this time; one might think that it should really be at the commencement of our undertaking that we do so. However, beginnings are always marked by enthusiasm and zeal. The trick is to retain that same level of enthusiasm at the end. Therefore, upon concluding the Book of Genesis, we make a commitment to continue our Torah studies with strength and devotion and pray that this conclusion be a steppingstone for further growth and development.
Additionally, we learn that that which is first is always definitive; since this is the first time that we recite "Chazak," it behooves us to ask what special lesson or teaching we can derive from it. This is the parashah in which the death of the Patriarch Jacob is announced, but, strangely enough, instead of saying that Jacob died, the Torah states, "Vayechi Yaakov," which, literally translated, means, "And Jacob lives." But how can that be? Isn't this a contradiction?
Our Sages teach us that as long as the children, the descendants of Jacob, keep his teachings alive, as long as we live by them, "Jacob did not die – rather, Jacob lives!" And that is the true meaning of "Chazak – Be strong." We must find strength in the knowledge that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs – our zeides and bubbies – live on in us. We need only follow in their footsteps.
- Gen. 48:5.
- Ibid. 48:20.