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Corrective Blessings

The first book of the Torah teaches us how to have relationships – between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, man and G-d, and especially, brothers. As Rabbi Sacks points out, the progression from Cain and Hevel through to Ephraim and Menasseh (and then Moses and Aharon) is a journey from murder to coexistence and then mutual support. Within the Jewish family, the winnowing process of brothers from Ishmael and Isaac, and then Jacob and Esau, to Joseph’s generation was difficult at best. And the participants had no way of knowing when the process would stop, when all the sons would become inheritors of the blessings of Avraham, that their seed would inherit the land of Israel, and continue to have a relationship with Hashem.

But the lack of specific knowledge did not stop anyone from making their best guess. Sarah decides that Ishmael is unsuitable, so he is unceremoniously removed from the scene. Avraham does the same thing to all the sons he has with Keturah, after Sarah died.

And then Rivkah decides, on her own initiative, to do the same thing to Esau. But instead of confronting her husband, as Sarah had done. Rivkah chooses a much more circuitous and devious path, one that leads to an avalanche of pain: she loses her beloved Yaakov for the rest of her life, the Jewish future for the world is cast into peril when Yaakov leaves, and Rivkah herself does not even have her death memorialized in the Torah. It is not recorded that Yaakov ever talks to his father again.

But clearly the fault was not Rivkah’s alone! Isaac did not talk to her of his plans; they were not united in deciding how to handle their sons. And so Esau ends up rejected, by his own mother, and Esau and Jacob have a very difficult and fraught reconciliation. It is no understatement to suggest that it does not end well.

So when, many, many years later, Yaakov finds himself in the same position as his father had been when he asked Esau to bring him venison before receiving a bracho, he conducts himself so very differently! Yaakov blesses Ephraim and Menasseh at the same time, in the same room, and with the other influential person in their life (Yosef) in the room. The possibility for misunderstanding has been minimized. There is no intrigue, or confusion or suspicion. Everyone hears the same blessing, and the same time, to the same pair of sons.

Imagine how differently the Torah would have gone had Yitzchak decided to do the same thing with his own sons! It is possible that Esau (who is never described in the text as being evil), would have remained within the fold, that the winnowing process would have stopped, and the Jewish people would have started expanding at that point.

And then when Yaakov blesses his grandchildren, he does not move the children around, to arrange to have the one he wishes the “stronger” blessing of his right hand to be on the right. Instead, Yaakov does something very odd, indeed. He crosses his arms. What does it mean?

Remember Yaakov’s history. Remember how the blessing for Esau and himself served as a divisive force, ripping the family asunder, never to reunify. It all started with a blessing, something that should be a happy and wonderful experience. But instead, it left repercussions for which the Jewish people still pay the price – we continue to be hated by Esau. And, as I have argued elsewhere, the two goats on Yom Kippur are a perpetual not-quite-atonement for the two kids that Yaakov uses to deceive his father.

So what Yaakov does by crossing his arms is to force the brothers closer to one another. A blessing with two straight arms are to two separate people, perhaps feet away from one another. A blessing with crossed arms forces the recipients to be touching one another. They are linked during the blessing, both one to the next, and through the nexus of the crossed arms. Yaakov is telling Ephraim and Menasseh that this blessing is constructive, unifying. He is correcting the errors that set off the chain of events that led Yaakov to describe the days of his life as “few and evil”.

This ties in nicely with a beautiful idea by Rabbi Sacks, that Ephraim (‘for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’) and Menasseh (“’for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’) represent both kinds of Jews for evermore: the Jew who sees G-d’s blessings wherever we are, and the Jew who is trying to forget, to assimilate. By crossing his arms, Yaakov is binding them together. We Jews, whatever our allegiances and kinds of devotion, are stuck with each other. Yaakov’s unifying blessing of Ephraim and Menasseh made sure of that.

And in so doing, Yaakov is also teaching each of us how to bless our own children. We do not bless like Yitzchak, we bless like Yaakov. “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.”

Comments are welcome!