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The end of this, the longest sidrah in the Torah, describes at great length the offerings brought by the princes of the tribes of Yisrael at the dedication of the altar. Each of the twelve princes brought an identical set of presents, each of which is listed in the verses. The Midrash has much to say about these gifts. Let us look at one rather intriguing statement about the gift of Elishama, the prince of the tribe of Ephraim:
On the seventh day, the prince of the children of Ephraim - Elishama ben Amihud. (Bemidbar 7:48)
Ephraim is the strength of my head... (Tehillim 60:9) - this refers to the prince of Ephraim, who brought his offering at the dedication of the altar on Shabbos, as the verse says, On the seventh day, the prince of the children of Ephraim. We know that it was Shabbos, for we have earlier demonstrated that the princes started to bring their offerings on Sunday... (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:1)
The verse quoted at the start of this midrash, "Ephraim is the strength of my head," refers to the incident at the end of Yaakov's life when he blessed his grandsons, Menasheh and Ephraim. He chose to bless Ephraim before Menasheh, even though Menasheh was older. Thus "Ephraim is the strength of my head" - Ephraim was given precedence over Menasheh. This midrash implies that it was only because Yaakov favored Ephraim that Elishama could offer his gift on Shabbos. For ordinarily the offering could not override the laws of Shabbos, but somehow the power which Yaakov had invested in the tribe of Ephraim enabled their offering to be an exception. This fascinating midrash is complicated by the following:
This one pushed aside Shabbos and tumah [ritual impurity], although the offering of an individual pushes aside neither. (Sifri, Naso 51)
This indicates that had any of the princes come to offer their gift on Shabbos, their donation would have superseded the Shabbos regulations. (The same would also have applied to the laws of tumah.) What have the blessings of Yaakov to do with the ability of a prince to bring a gift on Shabbos centuries later, and how did this affect the other tribes?
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Ephraim AND MENASHEH
To begin our study, we must examine the natures of the two sons of Yosef, Menasheh and Ephraim. As always, the name of a person reveals much about his essence, and in these two cases, we are given this information explicitly:
Yosef named the firstborn Menasheh, "for God has made me forget all of my trouble and all of my father's house." He named the second Ephraim, "for God has made me fruitful in the land of my oppression."(Bereishis 41:51-52)
The name Menasheh finds its root meaning in forgetting, or distancing oneself from the past. This represents a particular sort of Divine service, in which one divests oneself of all manner of bad traits, hoping to achieve perfection in their stead. Ephraim, on the other hand, finds its root meaning in fruitfulness. This is a different style of progression toward spiritual goals, in which one focuses on developing good traits and performing mitzvos. These two distinct types of service are concisely described by the verse:
Depart from evil and do good... (Tehillim 34:15)
In our context, Menasheh is "depart from evil," whereas Ephraim is "do good."
If we recall the episode mentioned earlier, when Yaakov blessed Ephraim and Menasheh, we remember that in actual fact Yosef, the father of the two brothers, wanted them to be blessed in order of age - Menasheh before Ephraim. But Yaakov refused, instead blessing the younger before the older. Understanding this apparent dispute between Yosef and Yaakov will be crucial to the whole of our study.
Yosef wanted Menasheh to precede Ephraim; that is, he wanted events to follow the order described by the verse: first "depart from evil" and only then "do good." This, as we would expect, reflected the character of Yosef, who had spent his whole life struggling against bad to achieve greatness. Yaakov, however, chose to bless Ephraim before Menasheh. Within the context we have defined, this represents a lifestyle in which one first concentrates on performing good deeds. Then, due to the influx of holiness generated by one's new mode of life, any evil traits will automatically dissipate. In Yaakov's view, this approach to life was preferable to his son's mode of waiting until the bad has been destroyed before worrying about good deeds. In Yaakov's opinion (which we may assume is the norm) this is the general rule in Jewish life: we must begin our observance of the Torah by seeking mitzvos and learning, assigning a secondary role to eliminating evil. This will follow later, for as the holiness of a Torah lifestyle enters our beings, any bad will be consumed or expelled.
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The problem with Yosef's approach to life is evident from examining its application to Shabbos. The Shabbos is very holy, and, as such, perhaps we should engage in great spiritual preparations to be ready to accept its holiness. The trouble with this is, who could ever say that he is ready? Surely, still more preparations could be performed. The inevitable result of this is that we would never consider ourselves ready, and hence, we would never have Shabbos! Instead, we each do our best during the week, and Shabbos just comes; somehow, we are ready to receive its majesty. This means that an ordinary person who follows Yosef's approach will spend his whole life attempting to eliminate bad traits from his personality, but will never reach the point when he feels that he is finished with that stage and ready to move on. As such, he will always remain stuck at the "depart from evil" stage, unable to "do good" at all. Instead, we follow Yaakov's view - getting on with a life of mitzvos and Torah study, confident that we will ultimately achieve success both as doers and departers.
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THE SHABBOS OFFERING
Returning to our original subject, we can now appreciate why Ephraim's offering pushed aside the Shabbos prohibitions. Yaakov's special selection of Ephraim over Menasheh meant that the emphasis in Jewish life was forever placed on "doing good." When the prince of Ephraim brought his offering, this was an act of great generosity and a shining example of the preference for starting the Divine worship of one's tribe with a positive act. This is indicated by the fact that Elishama brought his offering even though it was Shabbos. The Divine wisdom underscored the rationale behind this departure from normative halachah by arranging it that Ephraim and no other tribe was scheduled to bring their offering on Shabbos.
Of course, this emphasis on doing good does not apply only to the members of Ephraim - it is, since the blessings administered by Yaakov, a universal rule, applicable to every member of klal Yisrael. This is what is meant by the Sifri, which claims that any one of the tribes could have offered on Shabbos had it been necessary. Once Yaakov had determined the suitable path for all of his descendants, any one of them could have and would have brought their offerings on Shabbos.