My father-in-law, Rabbi Singer, attended one of the first Torah Umesorah conventions for day school principals. They had a major challenge. Many of the children came from homes that were not Torah observant. Those students knew very little, yet the learning curriculum was at a high standard, including in-depth meforshim (commentary) on the Gemara. The principals felt this was way too much to expect from the students and wanted to simplify the curriculum.
Many great Torah leaders spoke at the dinner, but all awaited the words of the generation’s leader, Hagaon Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein opened by stating that the bracha that parents give their sons at the beginning of Shabbos is based on Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menashe: “With you, Israel will bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.’” This is why we bless our sons with those same words.
Rav Moshe then raised his voice and asked, “Why not like Reuven, Yehuda, Yissachar or any of the other children of Yaakov? What was so unique about Ephraim and Menashe?” Rav Moshe answered it was because Ephraim and Menashe reached the highest level of Torah learning. Yaakov had taught all the complexity and secrets of Torah to Yosef, who then taught all of this Torah to Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing we give all our children is to reach the highest level of Torah learning. Sometimes the child can’t get there, but success can only be achieved if we strive for the highest level. Therefore, said Rav Moshe, the curriculum must be on a high level no matter what. The principals took in the message and felt comforted in continuing their policy.
An alternate explanation for using Ephraim and Menashe for blessing is offered by the Dinover Rebbe. Menashe was the older son, but Yaakov blessed Ephraim first as he felt he was more deserving of the blessing. Menashe did not gripe, complain or protest, nor did Ephraim gloat or act haughty over Menashe. Both brothers accepted Yaakov’s decision and maintained brotherly love for each other. From the beginning of time, there was sibling rivalry: Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and Yosef and his brothers. But Ephraim and Menashe were exemplary in maintaining their brotherly love without jealousy. For this reason, we bless our children to have this love, care and unity with their siblings
Another reason offered is that Ephraim and Menashe maintained their high level in Torah and mitzvos while living in Egyptian exile. Yaakov was blessing klal Yisrael that they too should succeed in maintaining their life of Torah and mitzvos even when living among foreign nations.
I would like to suggest yet another explanation. Usually, each succeeding generation is a bit lower in Torah knowledge than prior generations. Ephraim and Menashe were different. Even though they were the grandchildren of Yaakov, they reached the same level as their uncles—the shevatim. There was no decline in their generation. Yaakov made clear that Ephraim and Menashe were equivalent in Torah level to their uncles, Yaakov’s children. Thus in blessing our children with reference to Ephraim and Menashe, we are wishing that they remain at the same powerful level of Torah learning as their ancestors and not decline.
People love to receive brachos (blessings) from tzaddikim. But how do brachos work? Can I really give someone a blessing and it will come to fruition? Rav Yerucham Levovitz notes that brachos are not magic; they can only come to fruition if the individual is deserving or suited for that blessing.
There are different approaches to offering brachos. The Chofetz Chaim would tell people who would ask him for brachos, “The Torah is the source of all blessing. If you learn Torah, you will receive bracha.” Other tzaddikim give brachos freely, since a tzaddik has a close connection to Hashem, the Source of bracha, and by giving a bracha he is sharing Hashem’s blessing with others.
When Yaakov told Ephraim and Menashe, “With you, Israel will bless,” Yaakov was giving all parents a special ability to shower their children with blessing.
This past week was the yahrzeit of my paternal grandfather, Mr. Helmut Bodenheim, Naftali ben Avraham, z”l. He was born and raised in Manheim, Germany, and was fortunate to receive a visa to immigrate to America in 1938. As a single young man on his own in New York, he had many challenges to remain steadfast in his commitment to Torah and mitzvos, yet he never wavered. He was a man of truth. He held onto his family’s German minhagim, which we still follow. I vividly remember the brachos I received from him.
May all the Torah and mitzvos of my family be a merit for his neshama, and I daven that I can effectively pass on to my children and grandchildren the bracha that my grandfather gave to me.