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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
Every Friday night, Jewish families re-enact the poignant scene from Bereishit where Yaakov, reunited with his son Yosef, blesses Yosef’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Overwhelmed with emotion, Yaakov says, “I never knew if I’d see your face again… but now God has even let me see your children” (Bereishit 48:11). He then blesses them, saying, “Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe’” (Bereishit 48:20).
This is the blessing that parents and grandparents continue to use to this very day. But why is it so significant? The Yalkut Yehudah suggests it’s because Ephraim and Menashe were the first Jewish children born in exile, symbolising the aspiration for Jewish identity and preservation amid the Diaspora.
A different interpretation comes from Lord Jakobovits zt”l, who notes that this scene is unique in Torah and Tanach. Unlike the often complex parent-child relationships marked by worry and rebellion, especially throughout Sefer Bereishit, the bond of grandparent to grandchild is one of pure, untroubled love. This uncomplicated affection makes Yaakov’s blessing a model for intergenerational blessings. The truth of this is evident to anyone who has experienced the joy of being a grandparent themselves.
The interaction between grandparents and grandchildren is further explored in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 30a) attributes to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that teaching Torah to a grandchild is like receiving the Torah from Har Sinai, emphasising the spiritual significance of this familial bond. The Talmud Yerushalmi offers a different perspective: it highlights the importance of a grandparent learning Torah from a grandchild, and points out that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would listen to his grandson recite the weekly parsha every Friday. This practice is so sacred that Rabbi Yehoshua once left a bathhouse mid-bath upon realising he was late for this weekly ritual! These Talmudic views beautifully illustrate that both teaching and learning from grandchildren are revered in Jewish tradition. This dual privilege encapsulates Jewish continuity and the intergenerational transmission of values and learning.
The concept of grandparental blessings is further seen at the end of the Shabbat Maariv, where we say the words: “May you live to see your children’s children- peace be on Israel” (Tehillim 128:6). From here we can learn that those who consider the future – symbolised by grandchildren – inherently work towards peace. In contrast, fixating on past grievances fosters conflict. This narrative of Yaakov’s life – blessing and being blessed by grandchildren, teaching them and learning from them – illustrates crucial Jewish values. These acts bring about a serene conclusion to Yaakov’s otherwise tumultuous life. The story and its interpretations offer deep insights into the nature of family relationships, the importance of preserving cultural identity, and the value of intergenerational learning. It provides a framework for understanding
Around the Shabbat Table
- How can the story of Yaakov blessing Ephraim and Menashe inspire us to maintain our identity in challenging environments?
- How can the experience of being in exile – as with Ephraim and Menashe – impact a family’s cultural and religious identity over time?
- How do you think blessing one’s descendants influences family traditions and values across generations?
Parsha in Passing
Yaakov spends his final 17 years happily in Egypt. As he nears the end of his life, he asks Yosef to promise to bury him in the Holy Land. Then, in an emotional scene, Yaakov gives blessings to Yosef’s sons, Menashe and Ephraim, and thereby raises his grandsons to the status of his own sons and founders of Israelite tribes.
Yaakov also tries to reveal the future of the Jewish people to his children, but he finds he is unable to do so. Instead, he bestows blessings upon his sons, defining the destinies of their tribes. Yehuda’s tribe will produce leaders and kings. Levi will bring forth priests, and scholars will emerge from Yissachar. Zevulun’s family will be people of the sea, and Shimon’s will become teachers. Gad’s tribe will be soldiers, and Dan’s will be judges. In these final blessings, Yaakov also expresses rebuke to some of his children: Reuven is chastised for his indiscretion, and Shimon and Levi for their violence in Shechem and against Yosef. Yaakov’s death, soon after, leads to a grand funeral procession involving his family, Egyptian dignitaries, and cavalry, escorting him to his final resting-place: the Cave of Machpelah.
As for Yosef, he lives until the age of 110. Like his father, he requests that his remains be transported to the Holy Land, a wish that will be fulfilled (but not until Yetziat Mitzrayim). Yosef also leaves a message of hope and faith for the Israelites, reminding them of God’s promise: “God will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land to the land He promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.”
Yaakov: The father of dreamers and destinies, bestowing blessings that shape the future.
Ephraim: The younger brother, stepping ahead with an elder’s blessing,
echoing a history of reversed roles.
Menashe: The elder brother, graciously accepting a younger’s share, proud of his unique blessing.
The 12 Tribes: From leadership to scholarship, from strength to wisdom, we embody their diverse paths.
Yosef: At his father’s side, along with his sons. Dreams do come true!
Vayechi, the last parsha in Sefer Bereishit, uses blessings to illustrate the profound significance of intergenerational relationships, particularly between grandparents and grandchildren.
Rabbi Sacks emphasises how these relationships are not only a source of spiritual connection but also serve as a vital means for transmitting religious values across generations. The story of Yaakov blessing his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe, serves as a central point in this theme, illustrating the depth and purity of grandparental love and the enduring importance of these blessings in Jewish life.
Rabbi Sacks also explores how this theme is reflected in various Jewish teachings and practices, highlighting the unique role that grandparents play in the continuity of tradition and the nurturing of future generations.
- Can you think of any other relationships throughout Tanach between grandparents and grandchildren?
- What story or message would you like your own grandchildren to learn from you?
A Blessing on your Head is a fun way to emulate the many animal-themed brachot that Yaakov gives his children and grandchildren. In this game, we will give “animal-themed” blessings too. The funnier, punnier, and more creative, the better! Each player turns to the person on their right and offers them a short, positive bracha, incorporating an animal into their wish. For example:
- “I bless you to soar through challenges like an eagle in flight.”
- “May you never find yourself barking up the wrong tree.”
- “I hope your days are filled with pawsitivity.”
A fun variation of this game uses the theme of Shabbat food, like challah, grape juice, chulent and kugel. Stew on that for a bit!
A practical takeaway from Vayechi is the enduring value of hope, and faith, especially in difficult times.
This lesson is vividly illustrated by Yosef’s final words to his brothers as he reminds them of God’s promise, emphasising the importance of persisting even in the face of adversity.
So, how can we accomplish that today? Try committing to realistic goal-setting and celebrating small victories, which fosters a sense of progress and control. In addition, learning from both historical and personal stories of resilience provides a sense of shared human endurance, reinforcing our hope and faith even in challenging times.
How do you stay hopeful when faced with difficult situations?
Carobs for the Future
This is a story that is told in our Talmud, our Gemara (Taanit 23a). That means that someone a very long time ago wanted us to hear this story. That’s one of the special things about being Jewish. We care about what the people who came before us had to say, and we care about what the people who will come after us get to hear from our own stories!
Once upon a time, in a sunny land, there lived a very wise man named Honi. Honi was known for a rather special ability. Whenever he drew a circle on the ground, stepped inside the circle, and prayed for rain, the rain would miraculously start to fall.
One day, as Honi was walking down a dusty road, he saw a man with a grey beard carefully planting a tiny carob tree. Being curious, Honi asked the man, “How many years will pass before this little tree gives sweet carob fruits?”
The man replied thoughtfully, “It will probably take about seventy years for this tree to grow big enough to bear fruit.”
Honi, with wide eyes, wondered, “Seventy years? That’s a very very long way away! Do you think you will still be here to taste the carob from this tree in seventy years?”
The man answered with a gentle smile, “I might not be here to see this tree grow or to taste its fruit. But you see, when I was a little boy, my parents and grandparents planted carob trees. Now, I get to enjoy their fruits because of their hard work! Just like they planted trees for me, I am planting this tree for my children and their children.”
Honi nodded. He realised that many of the things we do in life are like planting trees, not for our own benefit, but for those who come after us.
Can you think of something that you can do now that will help somebody else in the future?
Question: In the entire book of Bereishit, how many instances of sibling rivalry can you find?
(Helpful Hint: one of them involves brothers-in-law.)
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
There are six instances of sibling rivalry in Sefer Bereishit: Kayin vs. Hevel, Shem and Yafet vs. Cham, Avraham vs. Lot (his brother-in-law), Yitzchak vs. Yishmael, Yaakov vs. Eisav, and Yosef vs. his older brothers.
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks