Old man rhythm is in my shoes
It’s no use to sittin’ and a-singin’ the blues
So be my guest, you got nothin’ to lose
Won’t ya let me take you on a sea cruise?
Johnny Rivers 1974
We go on a wonderfully relaxing cruise every week. It’s only a 25-hour cruise but it makes us leave our regular worries and cares far behind us. Yes, the Shabbat is a really big deal for the Lapin family. As the sun drops towards the western horizon on Friday afternoon, the frantic turbulence that swirls through our lives starts slowing down. Along with her Sous-Chefs and her assistants, all of whom are closely related to her, Susan puts the finishing touches to the three meals she will serve during the next 25 hours. I get the garbage out, make sure the cars are properly parked for the weekend, and wrap up the remaining tasks of my week. Finally, as the last rays of the sun turn red, I turn off my computer, telephone, fax machine, and tablet. Then comes the last action of the week when Susan lights the Sabbath candles that sit upon the dining room table. As their dancing incandescence casts highlights upon the white table cloth, we know Shabbat has arrived. We’ve cast the mooring lines off down to the dock and we’re off on our sea cruise.
One of the moments that seems most moving to the guests at our Shabbat meal is when Susan and I bless our children.
To the girls we say:
God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
To the boys we echo the words of Jacob to his grandchildren and we say:
God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.
Of all the many impressive Scriptural characters, why do we choose exactly these two rather obscure boys to bring blessing on our sons? The answer is that in so doing, we are merely obeying the directives of Father Jacob. Listen to the entire verse from which I just quoted a few words.
So he [Jacob] blessed them [Ephraim and Manasseh] that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,”
thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.
Let’s jump back a few verses to see how Father Jacob named the younger Ephraim before the older Manasseh.
Joseph brought his two sons to his father, Jacob/Israel for a blessing:
Joseph took the two of them, Ephraim with his right hand—to Israel’s left—and Manasseh with his left hand—to Israel’s right—and brought them close to him.
Then Father Jacob startled his eleventh son:
But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh’s head—thus crossing his hands—although Manasseh was the first-born.
When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. “Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.”
Father Jacob then rather curtly told his son, Joseph, that he knew exactly what he was doing.
What led Joseph to exhibit such lamentable chutzpah as to correct his revered father in front of Manasseh and Ephraim?
Joseph was super-sensitive to the family problems that can arise when birth order is not followed. He knew of the terrible tension between his father Jacob and his uncle Esau, the older son, whom his father had supplanted many years earlier. Jacob had also loved the younger Rachel more than her older sister Leah which set off tensions between the two sisters. And worst of all, Jacob had caused his sons to sell their young brother Joseph into slavery because Jacob seemed to favor Joseph. Now Joseph watched his father continuing the terrible tradition of family tension into the next generation by placing his younger grandson beneath his right hand.
But Jacob knew exactly what he was doing. Earlier I asked why we bring blessing on our sons by means of these two brothers and I explained that Jacob instructed us to do so. However, that merely postpones the question: Why did Jacob direct us to bless our sons by invoking the names of Manasseh and Ephraim?
The answer is that after being kidnapped, enslaved, and rising to power, Joseph had to create a new life for himself in a far away land with its alien culture. His two sons became his partners in this enterprise and he named them for the two most important tools needed by any of us trying to build a life.
He named Manasseh for material prosperity and financial success. He named Ephraim for connection with God and the spiritual grounding and identity that brings.
Like most new immigrants, when Joseph arrived in Egypt he was a stranger in a strange land. He naturally had no choice but to focus on the basics of life so he named his first son, Manasseh accordingly. This is not to say he forgot his heritage or neglected his spiritual identity—he didn’t. But he made sure of the basics of life’s necessities. After he was established he was able to make his religious identity as a Hebrew his priority. Now, when he had his second son, he named him Ephraim.
But later, for all his descendants, Father Jacob corrected the order by putting Ephraim ahead of Manasseh. If you get your spiritual priorities right, the material prosperity follows, but the reverse hardly ever happens.
That’s why the spiritual priority of observing the Sabbath takes first place when the sun sets on Friday even though there is always more work we would otherwise think that we need to do.