Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, p. 432ff.

I. This week’s Torah reading relates that when Yosef presented his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, before Yaakov for him to bless them, Yaakov placed his right hand on Ephraim and his left hand on Menasheh. When Yosef saw this: “It displeased him.... He told his father: ‘No, father, this one (Menasheh) is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.’

“Yaakov answered him: ‘I know, my son, I know.... He will also become great, yet his younger brother will become greater than he....’ And he placed Ephraim before Menasheh.”1

Explanation is necessary: The reason a firstborn receives a greater blessing than other children is that he possesses an advantage over them and [he deserves] greater impor­tance than they do.2 If Ephraim’s level surpassed that of Menasheh3 (“His younger brother will become greater than he”), why was it ordained from Above that Menasheh would be the firstborn, and not Ephraim?

From [the fact that Menasheh was the firstborn,] we can conclude that although “his younger brother will become greater than he,” Menasheh possessed an advantage over Ephraim and, because of that advantage, he was Yosef’s firstborn. It is only that Yaakov’s blessing emphasized a quality in which Ephraim surpassed Menasheh. Therefore [in this context,] he “placed Ephraim before Menasheh.”

II. There is another concept involved. As mentioned many times, it is not appropriate to say that tzaddikim — and surely not the Patriarchs or Yaakov’s sons — commit mistakes. In particular, this applies with regard to matters that were recorded in the Torah, [the Torah] of truth. Cer­tainly, such matters represent eternal4 truth.5 Since the word Torah (vru,) is related to the word horaah (vtruv), meaning “instruction,”6 these matters serve as eternal lessons for every Jew in each generation.

From this, it can be understood that Yosef did not state: “This one is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his (Menasheh’s) head,” because he erred and did not realize that “his younger brother will become greater than he.” Instead, it was because he maintained that the advantage Menasheh possessed {because he was “the firstborn” (as stated in section I)} outweighed the advantage possessed by Ephraim.

Thus both concepts — Yosef’s impression that the advantage Menasheh possessed is higher, and Yaakov’s approach, that Ephraim’s level is higher — are true. From the standpoint of Yosef’s attributes (and Divine service), Menasheh is higher,7 while from the standpoint of Yaakov’s attributes (and Divine service), Ephraim is higher.

Thus we see that with regard to Yosef’s relationship with his two sons, Menasheh is the firstborn, and the power of his father is manifest in him more than in his other son.8 With regard to their relationship to Yaakov, by contrast, the order is, “The two sons born to you... are mine.... I will consider Ephraim and Menasheh as Reuven and Shimon.”9 In this statement, Ephraim10 is placed before Menasheh and is compared to Reuven, Yaakov’s firstborn.11

III. The difference between Menasheh and Ephraim — and also the advantage each of them possesses and the reason Menasheh shares a closer connection to Yosef, and Ephraim to Yaakov’s (blessing) — can be understood through [an analysis of ] the differences between their names.

Menasheh (vabn) was given his name, because “G‑d made me forget (hbab) all my struggle and all my father’s home.”12 And Ephraim (ohrpt) was given his name, because “G‑d has made me fruitful (hbrpv) in the land of my oppres­sion.”13 Both of these names express the feelings which the descent to Egypt evoked within Yosef, but each name communicates an opposite thrust.

The name Menasheh reminds Yosef that he “was made to forget... his father’s house” — {i.e., he realizes that he is living in a place which makes him vault away14 (and forget) his father’s home}. This name expresses his great yearning15 (not to forget, and on the contrary,) to remain connected with his father’s home. The name Ephraim, by contrast, reflects praise and thanksgiving for “mak[ing] me fruitful in the land of my oppression, [focusing] on the advantage and positive attributes which accrued to [Yosef] in Egypt.

These two concepts reflect two [general] thrusts of the Jews’ Divine service in “the land of their oppression,” in exile:16 One of the modes of Divine service puts the empha­sis on not being affected by one’s surrounding environment, by remaining in touch with one’s “father’s home” (the situation in which the person existed before his descent into exile). The person continually reminds himself that he is living in a situation that makes him forget his father’s home. And [these efforts] prevent him from forgetting.17

The second mode emphasizes how the person’s Divine service concerns “the land of my oppression” and [confronts] the darkness of exile. He is not (to the same degree) concerned with remembering “his father’s home.” Instead, he labors to (illuminate the darkness of the exile with the light of holiness. These efforts also elevate the person himself and create a positive advantage within his personality.) And through these efforts, the person “becomes fruitful in the land of his oppression.”18

IV. The reason why Ephraim’s potential is considered higher than Menasheh’s is that the ultimate purpose of the descent to Egypt (and in a larger sense, the descent into exile) is that it is a descent for the sake of ascent,19 to reach a position above the level that preceded the descent. {This involves not only not forgetting one’s father’s home, but also (and primarily) making a change within [the environ­ment of] the exile,} enabling it to attain a higher level through the descent, being “fruitful in the land of oppres­sion.”

Nevertheless, Menasheh is still the firstborn. For with regard to birth20 (revelation), i.e., Divine service in a revealed, active sense, Menasheh must come before Ephraim. Before one can achieve within “the land of oppression,” which is associated with the mode of “doing good,”21 one must first ensure that one will not be affected by the darkness of exile — the mode of “turning away from evil”20 — by continually remembering (and thus remaining in contact with) his father’s home.

The ultimate intent, however, is the [subsequent] ascent, [the Divine service of] Ephraim. And therefore, Ephraim is mentioned first in Yaakov’s blessing.22 For in the blessing and endowment of power from Above for Divine service during the exile, Ephraim is more important. And therefore, “he placed Ephraim before Menasheh.”23

V. A deeper explanation of the above: There are several dimensions to the advantage and the higher quality which a Jew achieves through his service in (the darkness of) exile:

a) The descent brings out the power of the soul, show­ing that it is not influenced by the darkness of exile, just as an opponent calls forth a person’s attribute of victory.24 In a similar vein, [the Baal Shem Tov interprets25 the verse:26 “My soul thirsts for You (because I am) in a parched land... so may I see You in the Sanctuary,” [as a request that the desire for G‑dliness felt when distant, continue after he comes close again].

b) A deeper purpose: The great descent expresses the deeper, inner power of the soul which is unbounded. This power enables the soul {not only to remain undiminished, for exile will cause it to descend, but on the contrary,} to influence his surroundings and elevate them to his level, transforming the darkness of the exile into light.27

These two qualities, however, reflect the advantages and positive qualities which the soul brings out [based on its own potential]. Exile [is merely a catalyst, enabling] this advantage (which the soul possesses in potential) to be expressed through Divine service]. There is, nevertheless, a higher positive quality which the soul expresses (through its Divine service in exile) [that makes exile a positive influence]:

c) Through transforming the darkness of exile to light, the soul receives a positive quality which it does not pos­sess within its own potential. To cite a parallel: a baal teshuvah who possesses merits that come from the trans­formation of sins, [a positive quality] which a tzaddik does not possess.28

VI. On this basis, we can appreciate the difference between Menasheh and Ephraim. Both brothers are Yosef’s children, i.e., they both reveal his personal quality [which was expressed in the verse explaining his name]:29 “May G‑d add to me another son.” [Yosef’s Divine service] involves an increase which is brought about through Divine service in exile (making from the sitra achra, “the other,” a son30). But this service involves two levels:31

Menasheh — the powerful memory of one’s father’s home — the power of the soul which is revealed within Yosef through his Divine service in Egypt.

Ephraim — the higher quality of light which is drawn down from the darkness itself. “G‑d made me fruitful in the land of my oppression.”

Since the higher level is reached through the positive quality which is drawn down from the transformation of darkness; therefore, Ephraim is placed before Menasheh.

VII. Based on the above, it is difficult to understand the connection of Menasheh to Yosef and of Ephraim to Yaakov. For on the surface, the opposite appears to be true. Menasheh, who brings to mind “my father’s home,” seems to have a greater connection with Yaakov, while Ephraim, being “fruitful in the land of my oppression,” appears to share a more direct connection with Yosef, the increase which comes about through the Divine service of “May G‑d add to me another son.”32

This question can be resolved through the explanation of the verse:9 “And now the two sons born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt are mine. I will consider Ephraim and Menasheh as Reuven and Shimon.” There is a difficulty in this verse.33 On the surface, it would have been sufficient to say: “And now your two sons Ephraim and Menasheh are mine. I will consider Ephraim and Menasheh as Reuven and Shimon.” Why is it necessary for the verse to add the phrase “born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt”?

It is possible to explain that the verse is doing more than mentioning which of Yosef’s sons will be counted in the reckoning of the tribes. It is also giving a rationale and explanation as to why they are connected to Yaakov (“they are mine”). “They are mine” because they were born to Yosef “in the land of Egypt,” and moreover, they were born “before I came to you in Egypt.” The intent is that although they were born in Egypt and raised in an environment dis­tant from Yaakov, they nevertheless conducted themselves as Yaakov’s grandchildren. This demonstrates that “They are mine”; they express Yaakov’s true perfection.34

VIII. Based on the above, we can explain why Yaakov mentioned Ephraim before Menasheh in this context (as stated above, section II): Since Menasheh reflects how the memory and the connection to “my father’s home” has not [entirely] ceased (as explained above at great length), this mode of service does not truly reflect how [Yosef existed] “before I came to you in Egypt.” For there is constantly (a memory of) “my father’s home.”

It is, in contrast, the Divine service of Ephraim which truly reflects the situation “before I came to you in Egypt.” In this mode of service, the person lives in “the land of my oppression,” and (on the surface) the connection with Yaakov (“my father’s home”) is not obvious. Nevertheless, he carries out his Divine service in a manner that reveals how he is Yaakov’s grandchild.

IX. In Chassidus35 it is explained that Yaakov is identified with “the attribute of truth which extends from one end to the other,”36 from the highest extreme to the lowest ex­treme. This motif is manifest through Yosef. For the level of Yaakov (as he exists for himself) is Atzilus, above the realms of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah. It is Yosef who brings Yaakov’s level (Atzilus) into these lower realms, and in particular into this material world (the lowest extreme).

{This is the inner motivating factor as to why Yaakov’s descent to Egypt came about because of Yosef. [Egypt (Mitzrayim) is identified with meitzarim (“boundaries” and “limitations”). Yosef draws Yaakov down into] the bounda­ries and limitations of the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah.}

Similar concepts apply with regard to the other extreme: Through the transformation of darkness (the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah)into light — transforming an “other” into a “son” — the higher quality of light is brought out from the darkness, attaining a level above Atzilus (Yaakov’s own spiritual level).37

This also explains38 why the seventeen years that Yaakov spent in Egypt were his best years, as implied by the verse:39 “And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years.” For through the descent into Egypt, he achieved his per­sonal fulfillment. [He demonstrated how his virtue could be expressed in all situations,] extending from the highest extreme to the lowest extreme.

X. Since Ephraim and Menasheh replace Yosef in the reck­oning of the tribes, it can be concluded that they reflect “the posterity of Yaakov, Yosef.”40 They manifest Yaakov’s quali­ties in the land of Egypt. And in doing so, they contribute a dimension over and above that of Yosef.

When Yosef descends into Egypt (in the analogue, the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah), Atzilus, Yaakov’s level, is revealed overtly. Since through [Yosef’s] Divine service, Yaakov’s influence which is above Egypt (i.e., Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah),41 shines openly, Egypt does not bring about concealment. On the contrary, Yosef becomes the ruler of Egypt.

Thus Yosef’s Divine service does not involve a genuine descent (and involvement with) the darkness of Egypt (the lowest extreme). [For due to Yosef’s influence,] the dark­ness [does not] oppose the light of holiness.

{This is reflected in the events which actually tran­spired. As long as Yosef was alive, there were no harsh decrees against the Jewish people. It was as if the Jews had not descended into Egypt. It was only when Yosef died that the descent became distinct; “On that day, it was as if [the Jews] entered Egypt.”42}

It is through [Ephraim and Menasheh], “the two sons born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt,” i.e., Divine service in a place where Yaakov’s influ­ence is not openly visible, a level where the darkness of Egypt can conceal and oppose holiness, that Yaakov’s qual­ity achieves consummate expression, [for their Divine service demonstrates how his virtue is expressed in all situations,] extending from the highest extreme to the lowest extreme.43

XI. The three levels described above:

a) the level of Yaakov, who is higher than Egypt by virtue of his own [spiritual level],

b) Yosef, who illuminates Egypt because of the influ­ence of Yaakov, and

c) Yosef’s sons who relate to the darkness of Egypt, as it exists within its own frame of reference,

reflect the three positive qualities (enumerated in sec. V) that are expressed through the descent into exile.

The first quality — that because of the spiritual power of the soul, the exile cannot bring about a descent for the soul (but the darkness of exile itself is not transformed)
[— reflects distance]. It is as if the two are separate,44 [for one is] above the exile {like Yaakov,45 whose own level was too high to descend to [the mindset of] Egypt.}46

The second quality expresses the strength of the soul, [that it is so powerful that] nothing can oppose it, and thus even the darkness of exile will be transformed into light. This parallels the level of Yosef47 who draws down the level of Yaakov into Egypt. And thus the transformation of dark­ness to light comes about because of the revelation of Atzilus (Yaakov)48 in Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah (Egypt).

[The third level reflects how] the higher quality of light which is drawn down by the darkness itself is achieved (fundamentally49) through the service in the darkness of Egypt when Yaakov’s influence is not apparent.46 [This Divine service is performed by those] “born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you.”

XII. Based on the above, we can appreciate the connection between Menasheh and Yosef (which caused him to be Yosef’s firstborn), and the bond Ephraim shares with Yaakov.50 The Divine service of Menasheh focuses on revealing the remembrance of “my father’s home” (and through this to transform the darkness of Egypt). This resembles51 the Divine service of Yosef that draws down (into revelation) the influence of Yaakov into Beriah, Yetzi­rah, and Asiyah, and through this, brings about transformation.

The consummate expression of Yaakov’s [spiritual potential] comes when the higher quality of light is revealed from the darkness itself. This is accomplished by Ephraim,52 [for his Divine service reflects how]: “G‑d made me fruitful in the land of my oppression.”

XIII. The Jewish people as a collective are referred to with the name Yosef, as it is written:53 “He leads Yosef like sheep.” From this, we can appreciate that every Jew must express himself in both thrusts of Divine service: that of Menasheh and that of Ephraim.54

First, he must begin with the wish and the yearning to be in “his father’s home,” to be in an environment which transcends exile. His descent into a world where G‑dliness is concealed (in order to refine the exile) must be “compelled by [G‑d’s] decree.”55 Consequently, as soon as he completes his mission in the place of exile to which Divine Providence directed him, he hurries back to a place where he can devote himself entirely to matters of holiness, Torah, and Divine service.56

Nevertheless, throughout the time a person is involved in his or her mission in exile, he cannot remain content with the Divine service of Menasheh. He cannot satisfy himself with the knowledge that he has not forgotten his father’s home and has not been influenced by his environ­ment.

This alone [is not sufficient]. His Divine service must serve as a preparation for the consummation of the ultimate intent: “that G‑d make me fruitful in the land of my oppres­sion,”57 illuminating the darkness of exile with “the lamp of mitzvah and the light of Torah,”58 until that darkness is transformed into light: [and] “The night will shine as the day.”59

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayechi, 5730)