This week, Jacob, like his father before him, sets out to bless his progeny. The first to receive his blessings are Joseph’s sons, the brothers Ephraim and Menashe. Those who have been following since Bereshit will know that being a brother in the main story of the parsha is a fraught position. This lineage is riddled with kin-strife – Cain and Abel, Shem and Ham, Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There is a family history of choosing one son and abandoning the other. Jacob, still not fully recovered from the fallout of his own sons’ conflict, is determined to heal this intergenerational trauma. What is his advice to Joseph?
“אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי – Ephraim and Menashe will be for me as Reuben and Shmion.” (Genesis 48:5)
Jacob is telling Joseph that the way forward is for brothers to be brothers. Siblings ought to love each other, not to vie for blessings or paternal adoration. Ephraim and Menashe will be like Reuben and Shmion, not like Joseph and his brothers or Jacob and Esau.
In the laws of Shmita set out in Leviticus, we are told:
“אַל־תִּקַּ֤ח מֵֽאִתּוֹ֙ נֶ֣שֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּ֔ית וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְחֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ עִמָּֽךְ – Do not take advance or accrued interest from [your brother], but fear your God and your brother shall live with you.” (Leviticus 25:36)
The language of ‘brother’ in this context is notable. The laws of Shmita remind us that our fellows are our brothers, not to be contested with, but to be loved and aided in their time of need. Life on this Earth, given to us though no merit of our own, is not a competition, and G-d does not hand out reward based on accrual of resources.
This shabbat, we will invoke Jacob’s ancient blessing to our children on Friday night:
“יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה – May god make you like Ephraim and Menashe.” (Genesis 48:20)
As we do, let us remember that Menashe, the elder, did not protest to being mentioned after his younger brother Ephraim. Menashe was already changing the story of his family to the one we should hope to cultivate in our own families: the story of G-d’s abundant blessings, freely shared.
Eli Weinbach is an experiential educator for the Jewish people, and strives to manifest his love of the environment and Jewish tradition in a deeply connected world. He has worked for Hazon since 2017 in a number of capacities, including as a retreat coordinator, an outdoor educator, and most recently as a Rabbinic Intern. Eli was a JOFEE (Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming, and Environmental Educator) Fellow in 2018 and hasn’t stopped pickling since. In his free time, he enjoys reading and cooking with fake-meat substitutes. Anywhere that people are trying to free themselves from the constraints of conflicting truths, you will find Eli cheering them on.
Shmita Friday is just one piece of a large conversation that has been ongoing for a long time! We’d love to hear what you think – post a comment below, join our facebook group, and start talking about shmita with your friends and family.