What an emotional moment! Joseph brings his two sons for one of their last encounters with their grandfather, Jacob, to receive his final words of wisdom and blessings. Let’s imagine the scene. He approaches his father, his two hands draped supportively around each son’s shoulders. He has carefully aligned them so that Menashe is on his left and Ephraim is on his right. The alignment was deliberate and efficient. Since his father was facing him, his elder son will thus be on his father’s right, for according to the Torah, the firstborn is the primary inheritor.

Jacob proceeds to bless his two grandsons, but in doing so, disconcerts his son. He stretches out his hands in a criss-cross fashion so that his right hand rests on the younger son’s head and his left hand on the older son’s head. He has inventively reordered their hierarchy without physically moving anyone from their designated positions. Joseph is dismayed. He corrects his father by trying to realign his hands, “Not so, Father, for this is the firstborn; place your right hand on his head.” Unfazed, his father responds, “I know, my son, I know … .”1

What just happened? Does Joseph think his father doesn’t know what he’s doing? Or was Jacob’s eyesight diminished, impaired due to old age?

Well, you’re mistaken if you think Jacob erred. He was a prophet, and he visited a page of history 400 to 500 years off in the future. He saw (as Rashi explains) that the younger lad’s progeny, Joshua, would be a leader of greater eminence than Gideon, Menashe’s future progeny.

The story can end here, but something about the story still seems awry. Why didn’t G‑d just make Ephraim the firstborn and avoid this awkward, messy situation? Yes, it’s so simple for G‑d to make life simple.

Because there was something very right about this arm reversal. You see, Joseph, too, did not err when he insisted on conferring primacy to Menashe. There’s a story here …

Chassidic teachings show that each was right. Jacob did not err, and neither did Joseph. For Joseph’s brand of service, Menashe was the right fit; while for Jacob’s objectives, Ephraim was the more desirable one.

Actually, Jacob had dropped a hint earlier—when a tzadik speaks, you’ve got to listen! Every word, every nuance, has precision. He had told Joseph, even before the criss-crossed arm situation, that “Ephraim and Menashe are mine.”2 Notice that he mentioned Ephraim first.

So what’s going on?

Jacob didn’t only scan the next 10 generations of Jewish leadership. He looked ahead, all the way to the time of Redemption. You see, Redemption is Jacob’s mission, and it drove his every thought and move. (He even planned to reveal the top-secret date of the Redemption as part of his parting message to his children, but G‑d did not allow him to).3

The difference between the two sons can be gleaned by examining their names, which hint to their unique qualities and contributions.

Joseph had named his sons to convey his responses to his ordeals—two modes of surviving his dislocation from his father’s home. Two modes of serving G‑d in a foreign land and alien culture and two divergent contributions to the trajectory of Jewish history, all the way to the Redemption.

The Name Creates the Game

Menashe and Ephraim each represent another aspect of achievement.

Menashe: The root of the name Menashe is “forgotten” or “sprung away from.” With that name, Joseph was declaring, “I have not forgotten my father’s home. Though I am geographically and culturally far away, I am loyal and committed to every minor detail and resistant to any infringements of those values.” In short, he longs for what he lost. He wants to retain connection.

Ephraim: The root of the name Ephraim is “fruitfulness.” With this name, Joseph is saying, “I have been fruitful in the land of my pain.” It’s not based on memory and connection. It’s based on toiling to light up the surroundings into which he was foisted. The name expresses Joseph’s profound gratitude for his achievements in the land to which he was transplanted.

Menashe represents the status quo. Ephraim means growth. These represent the two tracks available to us throughout our exile: to survive and/or thrive. Each one requires enormous effort.

In our exile existence, the Menashe-mode reminds us to preserve our ideals, remaining unaffected by its pernicious climate. Menashe is the survivor.

In order to achieve new growth, we need a foundation to maintain our connection with our roots and standards. Menashe is therefore the first player in the field, the “firstborn.” This was critical to Joseph’s, as well as our, success during exile. Hence, Menashe’s superiority.

But is that the ultimate achievement? We are looking for transformation, not merely preservation. Ultimately, the purpose of going into exile is to come away even higher. Not just to preserve what we came in with, but to create more light than was there initially; hence, Ephraim’s superiority.

What Was, What Is

We are the Menashes and Ephraims of today, still striving to achieve Jacob’s objective. Like Joseph, we are flung far from our land and our rightful setting. We have two courses available to us, each one important.

The Menashe heritage-holders are solidly entrenched in their Jewish identity. Menashes maintain the traditions they were taught. But they won’t hit goals. They won’t break new ground. They won’t get us to where we ultimately need to go. While the status quo is admirable, we need forward-thinkers to bridge us to a great future. Legacies are useful because referring constantly to what was helps us remember it. But it lacks impetus, motivation and forward-moving passion.

The Ephraim Innovator breaks new ground. Ephraim represents achievement, venturing forth from the protective cocoon to coax life and light into parched and lost souls flung around the world. Ephraims influencethe exile environment by bringing the light of Torah and mitzvot to it.

The Menashe “heritage-holder” is sustained by lights he received. The “Ephraim Innovator” shines a new light.

In the Darkness, From the Darkness

Now let’s take this power to light up the darkness to the next level.

The criss-crossed hands incident has a backstory. Shortly before Joseph’s two sons received their grandfather’s special blessings, they were the recipients of an unanticipated, breathtaking promotion: Jacob announced to Joseph that Ephraim and Menashe would each be ranked as one of his own sons, progenitors of tribes of their own. Joseph must have been stunned. Only he, from all the siblings, the one they saw as the wayward son, the one they wanted to dispose of, merited to father two tribes of Israel.

Pay attention to Jacob’s announcement. Every word is significant: “The sons who were born to you before I came to [live with] you in Egypt are mine.” The words in bold seem superfluous. He could have said, more simply, “The sons who were born to you are mine.” Why state the obvious? Everyone knew that they were born “before he came to Egypt.”

Truth Is Eternal

Jacob embodies truth.4 What is truth? Constancy, continuity, eternality. No matter what changes, the truth remains constant. The truth and completeness of Jacob endures through all variations until his objective—Redemption—is achieved.

Jacob is hinting at this in his speech to Joseph, particularly the last two words. “The sons who were born to you … are mine.”

“When will I know that I have truly succeeded, that I have created a movement that will take us all the way to the finish line? When my descendants will maintain my ways in an alien land, despite my physical absence.”

Specifically, the distance made them his. The disconnection allowed for Jacob’s mission to be completed.

It feels like an eternity has passed since that Bible story. We’ve not yet achieved Jacob’s objective—redemption—but we’re really close!

At no time in history is the contribution of Ephraim as manifest as today. At no time in history has the concept of spreading light in the darkness been as developed. The Rebbe’s emissaries, shluchim, have flourished into a worldwide empire, carrying messages of inspiration to the remotest locales and outposts.

But it’s thanks to the Menashe heritage-holding. The Rebbe’s emissaries constantly restore their spirits and refill their inspiration before returning to their outposts with new vitality from the established Torah communities.

A New Era

And so,the process entailed two stages, involving two contiguous father-son teams.

Stage one was a collaboration between Jacob and Joseph: 1) Jacob’s lights and aura were imported into Egypt; 2) Joseph brought Jacob down into Egypt.

But we’re only halfway in. Joseph does not fully “enter” into Egypt. He does not grapple with the core power of Egypt’s evil—notice, no decrees were made during Joseph’s lifetime, and the enslavement only began after his passing. The descent was not complete. Hence, stage two.

Stage two was a collaboration between Joseph and his sons. Joseph brought the light in; his sons will be his extension cords. The sons who grew up “in the darkness” will ultimately achieve grandfather Jacob’s full objective.

The wandering sons that went into the darkness will generate new light upon their return, with a teshuva marked by the great love of reunion. Only through teshuvah with love can darkness itself be transformed to light. There’s the profit; we create more light than was initially put into the world. This light rebounds all the way up to the Divine worlds, beyond the level from which it was even launched! The truth has embraced the highest to the nethermost worlds.

Let’s take along this final message from Ephraim as we go on our way:

We couldn’t be who we are without the Menashes. But we can’t get where we need to go without the Ephraims. Heritages and heirlooms are lovely and necessary, but forward-thinkers embrace the future and invite it in.

Source: Likutei Sichot, vol. 15, pp. 432-438.