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Like Ephraim and Menashe

On Friday nights, when my husband, Jeremy, and I bless our children with the the priestly blessing (Bemidbar 6:24-26), rather than starting with the traditional openings of:

(For a daughter)

May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah

יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהיִם כְּשָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה

Or (for a son)

May you be like Ephraim and Menashe

יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלֹהיִם כְּאֶפְרַיְם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה

We instead combine them, saying:

May you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, Ephraim and Menashe.

יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהיִם כְּשָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה כְּאֶפְרַיְם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה
יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלֹהיִם כְּאֶפְרַיְם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה כְּשָׂרָה רִבְקָה רָחֵל וְלֵאָה

We, like many others, combine the traditional openings using all of the biblical characters male and female for our son and daughter. We want both of our children to be welcoming like Sarah, kind like Rebecca, loved like Rachel and strong like Leah. But who are Ephraim and Menashe and why do we want our children to be like them? Why use them as the ideal and not our patriarchs or any of the other faithful, well-known male biblical characters?

In a stunning address to the United Nations in Geneva a few weeks ago, Rachel Goldberg-Polin spoke about the last time she was with her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, before he and hundreds of others were abducted by Hamas terrorists and taken into Gaza. It was Friday night, October 6, and her family was celebrating Shabbat together right before Hersh left with his childhood friend to attend a music festival in the south of Israel. Hours later, the pure evil of Hamas upended the world as we knew it, Hersh’s best friend was one of hundreds murdered at the festival, Hersh’s arm had been blown off, and he was taken as a hostage into Gaza—where he remains one of 128 hostages. One of the last things Rachel did that Friday night was bless Hersh with the words of the priestly blessing, the traditional blessing given to children on Friday nights.

In her speech, she asks the same question about the opening to this blessing: Why Ephraim and Menashe? Because, she answers (echoing the teaching of a contemporary Israeli rabbi), they are the first brothers since the creation of the world who love each other. Unlike Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers who are all filled with hate, violence, and jealousy—Ephraim and Menashe choose a different path. Even as we read in this week’s parashah, Vayehi, when Jacob places his right hand (the birthright blessing) on Ephraim, the younger of the two, and his left hand (the inferior blessing) on Menashe, the older brother, they choose not to give in to the intergenerational hate around blessings and birthrights that had destroyed their family for generations. They break the cycle of hate.

Today, we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe because we want them to live in peace, to be builders of peace, to seek peace, to demand peace, and to dream of peace. The culmination of the priestly blessing is “וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלום—and grant you peace.” Peace is the ultimate blessing. Peace is the foundation for all other blessings and it is what we want both for and from our children and ourselves.

In Geneva, Rachel concluded her speech with a breathtaking original poem titled “One Tiny Seed”:

There is a lullaby that says your mother will cry a thousand tears before you grow to be a man.
I have cried a million tears in the last 67 days.
We all have.
And I know that way over there
there’s another woman
who looks just like me
because we are all so very similar
and she has also been crying.
All those tears, a sea of tears
they all taste the same.
Can we take them
gather them up,
remove the salt
and pour them over our desert of despair
and plant one tiny seed.
A seed wrapped in fear,
trauma, pain,
war and hope
and see what grows?
Could it be
that this woman
so very like me
that she and I could be sitting together in 50 years
laughing without teeth
because we have drunk so much sweet tea together
and now we are so very old
and our faces are creased
like worn-out brown paper bags.
And our sons
have their own grandchildren
and our sons have long lives
One of them without an arm
But who needs two arms anyway?
Is it all a dream?
A fantasy? A prophecy?
One tiny seed.

As we close the book of Bereshit (Genesis) on this final Shabbat of 2023, may we hear Rachel’s poem as a blessing, reminding us that in the midst of unfathomable pain, trauma, and fear, we too can dream of peace. That maybe one day, we can even break free from this seemingly endless cycle of hate כְּאֶפְרַיְם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה—like Ephraim and like Menashe.

Praying for a Shabbat shalom and a new year of planting tiny seeds.