A woman once came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and she looked totally dejected. He asked her, “What’s the matter? Why do you look so sad?”
“My entire life I have known that I’m just not a good person. I’ve been to so many therapists, I’ve read so many self-help books, but it’s no use. I think nasty things about others. I judge people. I don’t know what to do!”
The Rebbe responded to her as follows: “Maybe it’s time you stop thinking so much about how much bad you have done. Stop thinking about whether you are good and instead start DOING GOOD. Do good for others. Do good for yourself. Because when you do good, you might find out you’re a lot better than you think!”
It’s a scene that has remained etched in the memory of our people for thousands of years: Yaakov sitting with his two grandsons, Menashe & Ephraim, giving them a bracha. Yaakov is the first grandfather to ever bless and even interact with his grandchildren. Yet, as beautiful as the scene is, we are left frustrated and confused by one detail of this story: As Yaakov prepares to bless his sons, Yosef approaches with Menashe the bechor, the older son, on Yaakov’s right, and Ephraim, the younger son on Yaakov’s left.
וַיִּשְׁלַח֩ יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־יְמִינ֜וֹ וַיָּ֨שֶׁת עַל־רֹ֤אשׁ אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וְה֣וּא הַצָּעִ֔יר וְאֶת־שְׂמֹאל֖וֹ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה שִׂכֵּל֙ אֶת־יָדָ֔יו כִּ֥י מְנַשֶּׁ֖ה הַבְּכֽוֹר׃
Yaakov switches his hands, he places his right hand on Ephraim the younger son, and his left hand on Menashe, the older son.
And, as we see this play out, we can’t help but wonder: Why again? There has been so much sibling rivalry in these last few parshiyos, why does Yaakov feel the need to place Ephraim AHEAD of Menashe?
Before we go forward with any answers, it is important to note that the stories of the Avos are not simply stories that took place within their individual lives. The Avos recognized that Hashem had chosen them to be the progenitors of a great nation which would exist for thousands of years. They knew, therefore, that their choices would have ramifications not only in their generation, but for the future of Klal Yisrael.
Rashi points out, as well, that this was a very INTENTIONAL ACT on the part of Yaakov. He writes:
בהשכל וחכמה השכיל את ידיו כי יודע היה כי מנשה הבכור, ואף על פי כןמ לא שת ימינו עליו
He changed his hands intentionally with great thought and wisdom. He knew it was Menashe who was the bechor, and yet he changed his hands anyhow.
What, then, did Yaakov have in mind when he made this change?
The Shem MiShmuel, Rav Shmuel Borenstein, otherwise known as the Sochatchover Rebbe, offers a beautiful answer to our question. He explains that to understand what is happening here, we first have to understand the personalities of Menashe & Ephraim and what they each represent.
Menashe is Yosef’s firstborn, and his name is explained as follows:
וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי׃
Yosef called the older one Menashe: Because Hashem has helped me to FORGET all of my toil and the house of my father.
Menashe, represented for Yosef the ability for a person to step away from past failures, from past troubles, so they can begin anew.
When Ephraim is born, he is named as follows:
וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עׇנְיִֽי׃
And he named the second child Ephraim, for God has allowed me to be fruitful and find success in a land of oppression.
Ephraim represented Yosef’s ability to find success after so much hardship.
In a sense, Menashe & Ephraim represent two sides of a pasuk we know well from Tehillim chapter 34:
"ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב"
One should distance oneself from evil and do good!
Menashe is representative of a certain approach to spiritual growth. One where I am SUR MERA, I distance myself from the negative, the bad aspects of myself and my life, with the hope of allowing my true, positive self to eventually step forward. Ephraim, on the other hand, represents an altogether different approach to spiritual growth. An approach that says let’s not get so caught up in the negative, just “Asei Tov!” do good! Get moving with the development of positive traits, doing mitzvos, and creating for yourself a positive environment.
Explains the Shem MiShmuel, it was these disparate paths in Avodas Hashem that Yaakov & Yosef were debating at the moment Yaakov gave the brachos to his two grandsons.
Yosef said, “Abba! Menashe is the bechor! We have to place the value of Sur MeRa first because only if we defeat our yetzer hara can we grow to be our most successful as Ovdei Hashem. Of course, this isn’t surprising, as this was how Yosef had lived his life. Yosef struggled his whole life against the yetzer hara. In his most famous, defining moment, he was LITERALLY SUR MERA, running from Eishes Potiphar! He saw firsthand how being honest about our faults and doing our best to stay far away from them had allowed him to succeed in Mitzrayim.
His father Yaakov, however, disagreed. He tells Yosef, no. That may have worked for you, but in general, the path that I want to set forward for our people for generations is that we must give PRIMACY to “ASEI TOV”! Of course, we must distance ourselves from that which is bad for us, but if we get so caught up in the negative, waiting until we are pristine and perfect before we attempt to grow, we’ll be waiting a long time.
And this was what Yaakov was telling Yosef, and all of us, on that fateful day. He wasn’t choosing Ephraim the individual over Menashe the individual! He was charting a path forward for all of Am Yisrael in the future. “I want all of my grandchildren to be blessed to be like Ephraim & Menashe! Knowing that we need to first establish the Asei Tov in our lives, and only then can we focus on the Sur MeRa!”
And, if fact, says the Sochotchover, this idea is reflected in the Avoda in the Beis Hamikdash on Yom HaKippurim. One of the most dramatic moments of the Avoda of Kohein Gadol surrounds the two goats, one which is brought LaHashem and one which is discarded, thrown off a cliff la’azazel. Chazal explain in many places that the Seir laHashem, the one that is brought as part of the Avoda in the Beis Hamikdash represents Mitzvos Asei, ASEI TOV!, the positive ascent in Avodas Hashem, while the Seir La’Azazel represents SUR MEIRA, distancing ourselves from the negative parts of ourselves, throwing them away forever off a cliff.
In what order, then, might one assume the two should be brought? First send away the Azazel, distance ourselves from the bad of the past year and THEN we will be free to ascend in our Avodas Hashem! However, that is not the case. In fact, the Torah is EMPHATIC, saying about the Seir La’Azazel ״יׇעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי ה׳ לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו״ – it MUST be kept alive until after the Seir LaHashem has already been offered up. Why? For the exact same reason.
Because a spiritual life focused only on the NEGATIVE, on what we have done WRONG, and trying to PRY ourselves out of bad habits will not lead to success. We must first focus on ASEI TOV! Getting to work on something POSITIVE, and then the negative will begin to subside.
But you might ask, but how can I add new things to my life? How can I pretend to be more than I truly am? I don’t want to be a faker!
There is a parable told about a commoner who wanted to marry the princess. The commoner knew that he can never marry the princess. After all, he had the face of an ordinary person, the face of a commoner. He decided that he would go to an expert mask-maker to ask for a special mask which would give him the face of nobility, the face of importance, the face of wealth and prestige.
The mask-maker crafted the mask and with that, the commoner was able to court the princess and marry her. For many years he did not take off the mask. He walked wherever he went with this mask of nobility, prestige, and importance. One day an old friend came to visit him. In anger he said, “That is not your face. You are wearing a false face, a face of nobility, a face of importance?”
In his anger he ripped the mask off and they both gasped. Underneath the mask, the man’s own natural face had turned into a face which was identical to the face on the mask. After so many years of wearing the mask, his real face had molded and become the mask itself.
We’re all looking to grow, and we don’t always know where to turn. But I will tell you, if you’re looking for something to help light that fire inside, look for the Asei Tov, pick up a new sefer, be more cognizant of a new positive mitzvah, add a tefillah to your day. Because when we add on something positive, when we start to do good, we might find we’re a lot better than we think.