Blessing my Daughter and Jacob Blessing his Sons.

Editor’s Note:  This article is the second in a series of commentaries that GTJ will publish on this week’s Torah portion (click here to see the first article by Will Gotkin). Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

Parshat Vayechi

After Jacob blesses his sons prior to his death (Dina does not receive a blessing), they become the Twelve Tribes of Israel.  Israel is the name God gave to Jacob, a name that appears throughout the narrative of Jacob’s (aka Israel’s) blessings.  Two of the twelve tribes, however, are not Jacob’s sons, but his grandsons.  Jacob blesses Ephraim and Menasha, the sons of Joseph: “Ephraim and Menasha shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.”Genesis 48:5.  In practical terms, this meant that the grandsons would inherit not with their generation, but with the generation of their father; they will be receiving double.

Traditionally, when parents bless their sons on Friday night, they bless them to be like the fortunate Ephraim and Menasha, the recipients of a double portion.  Girls are blessed to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the Jewish Matriarchs.

Two popular explanations for why the blessings are after Ephraim and Menasha are as follows.

(1) The brothers did not fight each other for power, unlike the other sons of Jacob who sold their brother into slavery and that was just the beginning.

(2) They grew up as Jews in Egypt, continuing their traditions while living amongst non-Jews, or as the Velveteen Rabbi’s positive spin puts it, “we bless our sons to be like these two Diaspora figures because, as Diaspora Jews, they had the unique opportunity to grow up as my son will grow up: as a citizen of the world, who inevitably encounters people of other traditions and chooses to relate to them with respect.”

Why do we not bless our daughters with peacefulness and cultural continuity?  Instead, we bless daughters to be like the Matriarchs who did not live with peace, but instead with an ever present concern for safeguarding the piece of the pie belonging to them and their children.  Unlike our image of Ephraim and Menasha, the Matriarchs struggled for power.  Sarah asks Abraham to kick out Hagar and Ishmael, her concubine, and his child into the desert. Genesis 21:9-12.  Rebecca picks favorites amongst her twin sons when she tricks her husband Isaac into giving his blessing and his wealth to Jacob, rather than the oldest twin son Essau. Genesis 27: 1-22.  Rachel and Leah are the polygamous wives of Jacob.  Rachel is loved but mostly barren and dies young after giving birth to only two sons.  Leah has many babies, but she is the unwanted one.  Genesis 29-30.

The matriarchs primarily exist in relation to their husbands.  The entire realm of their accomplishments, dubious or brilliant, concerns husbands and sons.  In the text, they have no apparent spiritual or intellectual life.  They do not speak to God and God does not speak to them.

After my daughter was born we wanted to continue the tradition of the Friday night blessing, but I did not want my daughter to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, or Leah. While it is unfair and intellectually vapid to judge the lives of ancient people by a modern feminist standard, for my daughter’s blessing, I wanted to select women who had a spiritual life – women of interiority and power. Women who prayed.

Miriam is called a prophetess in the text of Exodus.  She plays an instrument and she sings a prayer to God after the crossing of the red sea. Exodus 15:20.  Deborah from Judges is also referred to as a prophetess.  She exceeds her position by becoming judge or leader of the people, and like Miriam she sings to God. Judges 4-5.

In addition to Miriam and Devorah, I included Ephraim and Menasha in my wishes for my daughter, because my daughter’s cultural and intellectual inheritance is the entirety of Jewish tradition (not just the portions previously accessible to women), the entirety of secular learning and the wisdom of other religions, represented by Ephraim’s and Menasha’s lives as Jews in Egypt.

Z may you be like Ephraim, Menasha, Miriam, and Devorah – peaceful, cosmopolitan, spiritual, and wholly you – both grounded in tradition and unfettered by its wisdom.