Our forefather Yaacov lived in Egypt for seventeen years while he and his entire family were supported by his son Yosef. When Yosef heard that his father was ill, he went along with his two sons, Menashe and Efraim, to visit and receive blessings.
At this meeting Yaacov told Yosef that his two sons would represent Yosef and become heads of two individual tribes, Efraim and Menashe.
When Yaacov wished to bless the children Yosef set them up before his father so that the older son, Menashe, would be positioned in front of Yaacov’s right hand and he placed the younger son, Efraim, in front of Yaacov’s left hand.
When Yaacov stretched his hands out to give the blessing he placed his right hand on the younger Efraim and his left hand on Menashe.
He explained to a bewildered Yosef, that although they will be both great, however, Yehoshua, who would succeed Moshe as Torah teacher and leader of the Jewish nation, would emerge from Efraim, and therefore his significant right hand was placed on Efraim’s head.
Rabbi Shimon Schwab o.b.m. points out that Yaacov did not switch Menashe and Efraim’s position; he rather crossed his hands and placed the right on Efraim. This means Menashe remained on Yaacov’s right. This is to signify that yes, Efraim’s diligence in study of Torah is worthy of Yaacov’s right hand when bestowing the blessing. However, Menashe remained on Yaacov’s right side to signify that Menashe’s role as ambassador to his father Yosef and his responsibility of supporting and taking care of the familiar and communal affairs is a key and essential contribution to the Jewish people.
Interestingly, in the blessing, Yaacov called them Ne’arim – a term generally used for youngsters – when in fact, Efraim and Menashe were in their twenties at the time. What did Yaacov mean? Commentaries explain that Yaacov meant that they should always do things swiftly with a youthful spirit and excitement.
Yaacov blessed them, “May they proliferate like fish within the land.” The blessing to be like fish, means that they should be populous like the reproduction of fish.
Additionally, it was a blessing that just as fish are underwater and concealed from the eye, so too, the children of Yosef will be concealed from the evil eye. In fact the Talmud tells us that if one feels vulnerable to an evil eye he should say, “I am from the children of Yosef, I am” and it will protect him.
The question is, how can one say that he is from Yosef, especially, if he is a Kohain or Levi and knows he is not from the tribe of Yosef? An answer given is that since Yosef supported and sustained the entire family of Yaacov in Egypt, the continuity of the family of Israel is attributed to him and we can all say, we are the children of Yosef.
What did Yaacov mean by “Proliferate like fish in the land,” fish cannot survive when they are out of water on dry land?
An answer offered is that Yaacov was hinting to what sustains a Jew and how he keeps connected. Torah is compared water. It is an endless flow of knowledge. Although fish have all the water they need, still, when it rains they lunge forth to gain another drop. Yaacov is relating to his grandchildren and to all his descendants, that to survive as a Jew and to keep a connection to our forefathers, we have to live ‘as fish’ in the spiritually protected environment of the water of Torah. And just like fish, we must rise up and strive to gain more and more.
Yaacov instructed parents to bless their children by stating “May G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe.” Asks Rabbi Moshe Feinstein o.b.m. How can we ever expect our children to be like Efriam and Menashe? After all they were holy and elevated as were the rest of Yaacov’s holy children!
Says Reb Moshe, we see from this that when a father gives a blessing to his children he should not settle for mediocrity, Rather, he should shoot for greatness – even for what seems impossible such as to be as great as Efraim and Menashe.
Traditionally, on Friday night parents give this blessing to their children. With it they instill the confidence, “You can do it – I believe you can – Give it your all!”