Joseph brings his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to be blessed by Jacob before his demise. Jacob surprises them by putting his right hand on Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on Manasseh, the older one. Joseph jumps in to correct the mistake. But what exactly bothered him? What was so wrong about Jacob’s choice? A lesson about education, sibling rivalry, and honoring parents.
Why Does Joseph Insist?
We are taught that Joseph acted three times to ensure his father treated Manasseh as the first born.
The first time is understandable. Wanting to position Manasseh before Ephraim, he placed Ephraim to his right and Manasseh to his left, to the right of his father. He did so because “the firstborn should be placed on the right for the blessing.”
However, after noticing that Jacob deliberately switched his hands during the blessing, placing his right on Ephraim and left on Manasseh, the question arises: why did he attempt to switch his father’s hands, saying, “The other one is the firstborn, place your right hand on his head”? Why would he, as a father, attempt to withhold a blessing from his son? If he were seeking Manasseh’s welfare, he should have requested a second blessing for him, instead of attempting to retract the blessing that was already granted to Ephraim!
Joseph’s Personal Memories
The explanation is as follows:
Joseph knew what could happen when a younger child is given preferential treatment—he personally experienced the result of his father’s special attention to him and his gift of the coat of many colors; it resulted in his brother’s jealousy, to the extent that they sold him into slavery in Egypt!
Therefore, when Joseph saw Jacob giving preferential treatment to Ephraim over Manasseh, he did everything in his power to stop it, to ensure that his own sons do not experience the same unfortunate fate. In the words of our Sages, “A person should never differentiate between his sons; due to two extra measures of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph over his brothers, his brothers were jealous of him, and ultimately our forefathers went down to Egypt.”
Jacob Never Knew
Jacob never found out that his sons sold Joseph into slavery out of jealousy. They certainly did not share this information with him, and Joseph too, certainly didn’t speak evil of his brothers [for we are forbidden to speak evil about other people, whether or not the information is true]. Therefore, Jacob saw no harm in granting Ephraim preferential treatment (seeing that he showed greater promise); to the contrary, that was how he treated his own children; he gave special status to Joseph instead of Reuven, the first born, and as a result, Joseph became the second-to-the-king, a ruler throughout the land of Egypt. It was the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream of the eleven stars bowing to him. The descent of the people of Israel into Egypt as well, Jacob saw as the fulfillment of the destiny which G-d told to Avraham at the covenant. And notable, through Joseph’s descent into Egypt, the descent of all the Israelites took place (not by force but) in an honorable fashion.
When Joseph saw favoritism being extended to his younger son, he couldn’t share his true feelings about it with his father, because he did not want to speak evil about his brothers. Therefore, he excused his actions by saying, “This is the first-born, place your right hand on his head.”
Shabbat Hagadol 5745-1985.
(Toras Menachem-Hisvaaduyos 5745 vol. 3 pg. 1642)