Left is right, right is left

This is what we want for our children and grandchildren; a level of devotion and commitment that comes from the kishkes.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Jacob blessing by Rembrandt
Jacob blessing by Rembrandt
צילום: INN:RS

Each Shabbat, we bless our sons with the names of Yaakov’s grandsons, may you be like these two, like Ephraim and Menashe.  But what, we may ask, makes these two so singular among the worthy of Israel that we should single out their names? They did not hear God’s command and leave the land of their birth.  They did not wrestle with an angel of God. They did not climb God’s holy mountain. Did not bring the Philistine down with a slingshot. So many other towering figures and yet it is these two names we recall in blessing our own children.

It came to this – these two, raised in Egypt, surrounded by the royal trappings befitting their father’s position managed to remain good sons and devoted grandchildren.  Doing so, being the next chain in a growing tradition, is what convinced their loving zayde to bless them, hoping every generation’s grandchildren would be like his own, like Ephraim and Menashe.  In them, Yaakov saw a real miracle – despite all that Yosef, his beloved son, had been through, from the trials and tribulations he’d suffered at the hands of his own brothers, to the false accusations in the house of Potiphar, to his false imprisonment and ultimate redemption and elevation in the court of Pharaoh, he had managed to teach them the traditions of Avos.  Despite the weight of his responsibilities as the Egyptian viceroy, he passed along the masoret and they embraced it.  

It is not accomplishment which defined them; it is continuation.

How easy for them to have become enamored with the ease, the wealth, the customs and manners of Egypt delivered to them as ones favored in Pharaoh’s court.  How much easier it would have been for them to go “off the derech” than our own children who, rather than the opulence of Pharaoh’s court are surrounded by Torah, mitzvot, chinuch, chassidus, rebbes, rebbeim, chadorim, sefarim, thousands of kosher products and on and on.  

Yaakov wanted all grandchildren to always be like Ephraim and Menashe.  His desire was not just because he was a doting grandfather playing favorites with his two einiklach.  No, Yaakov was very clear-eyed in his divinely-inspired blessings, as evidenced by those he bestowed upon his own children.  He dispensed blessings only to those who rightfully deserved them.

Ephraim and Menashe maintained the highest level of character and spirituality while living in a society and culture devoid of either.  For them, nothing “Jewish” came easy unlike our own children for whom everything “Jewish” comes easily. Perhaps too easily and comfortably.  Ephraim and Menashe weren’t Jewish because peer pressure forced them to act Jewish, to go through the motions.  They weren’t Jewish because they lived in a neighborhood filled with fine yeshivot.  They weren’t Jewish because their house was surrounded with kosher markets, and thriving shuls.  No, they were Jewish because they wanted to be in the marrow of their bones.

This is what we want for our children and grandchildren; a level of devotion and commitment that comes from the kishkes.

Ephraim and Menashe shared one other remarkable quality that is too often overlooked.  Unlike every other narrative of brothers who preceded them in the Torah, there was no rivalry between them.  They were and remained brothers in the truest sense.

Who would have begrudged Menashe some animosity?  After all, Yaakov reversed hands and declared the “younger brother shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations”.  Who would have been surprised if Ephraim felt he could “lord it over” his brother. But there is no animosity, only peace.

This too we pray for our children!  What a blessing! That our children live peacefully together forever on, even after we parents, and grandparents have left this worldly stage.  

As my parents’ yahrzeits approach, I recall my father’s hand-written tzavah (will).  Unlike most written wills, there was little in the document about worldly matters.  There were, instead, ethical and moral directives. One, “it was your mother’s (my mother pre-deceased my father by many years) wish and desire that you [my sister, brother and I] always treat each other with love, respect and consideration”.   

In other words, be “like Ephraim and Menashe”.


Yaakov’s ultimate bracha was delivered in a most strangely “choreographed” way.  Yosef brought his two sons Menashe (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger) to receive Yaakov’s blessings. “Joseph took the two of them - Ephraim with his right hand, to Yisrael’s left, and Menashe with his left, to Yisrael’s right – and he drew them close to him.”  In the next posuk we learn however, that Yisrael did not take his cue from Yosef, but rather “extended his right hand and laid it on Ephraim’s head though he was younger and his left hand on Menashe’s head.”  

Yosef protested but nothing Yosef said could convince his father that he had erred.  Yaakov declares, “I know, my son, I know.” There is no mistake.  Yaakov behaved mindfully.  He crossed his hands, extending his right hand diagonally toward Ephraim, who was on his left side and his left hand upon Menashe, who was on his right – contrary to what tradition would have dictated!

I have often pondered this mysterious “choreography”, convinced that there had to have been a very specific reason Yaakov did what he did.  I began to understand when I came upon a compelling insight offered by my grandfather, HaGaon Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran ZT’L, whose yahrzeit we recently observed on 14th Kislev.

My grandfather references the well-known posuk (in Devarim 17:11) where we are told to always and without exception follow the decisions of the beth din (court), even if “you are convinced that they are wrong”.  Rashi tells us that even if the court seems to be saying that “right is left, and left is right”, still we must listen.  The last word always belongs to the beth din.  

Lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagidu lecha yamin u’small – You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left.” 

We are not to question the beth din but rather we are to say, “God who enjoined the Mitzvot commanded that I perform all His commandments in accordance with all that they, who stand before Him, teach me to do...”  In other words, the Beth Din HaGadol, are the emissaries of God Himself.  

Their word is God’s word. 

My grandfather teaches (R’BAZ - Yalkut HaChanochi 5) that the true meaning of the Sifri cited by Rashi is found in Midrash Tanchuma (Naso 29), “A person should not say, ‘I will not fulfill the commandments of the elders, since they are not from the Torah’”.  That is, they should not say, “I will not follow the ruling of the Beth Din. As the Torah notes, ‘And you shall do according to...the law which they will instruct you.’” (Devarim 17:10-11) As God declares in Job (22:28) “You will decree, and it will be fulfilled for you.”  

We follow the Beth Din because God agrees with the Beth Din.  

My grandfather likens this to what is written about Yaakov at the time that he blessed Menashe and Ephraim.  He made left right and right left. “And he placed Ephraim before Menashe. He made the younger go before the older; and HaShem fulfilled his decree.”  

From this my grandfather divined the lesson that we are not to stray from what our elders/ chachamim teach us.  Yaakov switched right and left, something that strikes us as wrong – after all, Menashe is the elder, should not he receive the blessing?  But then we learn that God Himself affirms Yaakov’s “decision” when Ephraim’s tribe was the first to offer korbanot when the Sanctuary was dedicated.

When Yaakov declares, “I know, he (Menashe) too will become a people and he too will become great; yet his younger brother (Ephraim) shall become greater than he, and his offspring will fill the nations” it is not simply a prophecy, but rather a decree.

So too when we don’t “get” what the Beth Din, what our chachamim teach us, when we hear the teaching and it is as if “right is left, and left is right” we must hold fast to our faith.  As God says, reassuring us, “You shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you right or left.”

We may not “get it” but in due time the wisdom and truth will become evident.  This is the message Yaakov has left for us. Absolute faith in God and in His duly appointed “representatives” – the Beth Din HaGadol adjacent to the Beit HaMikdash – is the key to pure Jewish existence.  God, His Torah and its legitimate interpreters.

This total commitment and unquestioned faith is the unique characteristic of Ephraim and Menashe.  Their absolute commitment to all that was sacred to Yaakov and Yosef and their ability to overcome all doubts, distractions and challenges that are part of living in an “Egypt” in order to be fully Jewish, along with their lack of discord and rivalry are what inspired Yaakov to pray that all future generations’ children be “like Ephraim and Menashe.”  

 So, we pray and bless our children, praying that they will in fact be Ephraims and Menashes, that they will embrace being Jewish in their hearts and souls and that they will pursue and enjoy peace with each other.