Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Priority and Innovation

I

"May Hashem make you like Efraim and Menashe," and he put Efraim before Menashe (48:20). This classical beracha emphasizes Yaakov Avinu's reversal of the chronological order of birth of his grandsons when he blessed them. What does this incident represent?

Earlier (ibid, 14), Yaakov placed his right hand on Efraim's head, and his left hand on Menashe's. Yet Menashe remained on Yaakov's right knee, necessitating the crossing of Yaakov's hands. Why didn't Yaakov simply place Efraim on his right knee?

The Netziv (14) explains that Efraim preceded Menashe only in spiritual matters, symbolized by Yaakov's placing his right hand on Efraim's head. However, in wordly matters Menashe was superior, and was therefore blessed on Yaakov's right knee.

Indeed, the little we know about the lives of Efraim and Menashe supports the description of their respective strengths. Efraim was often in Yaakov's presence learning Torah (Rashi, 1), whereas Menashe served as the official interpreter in Yosef's palace (Rashi 42:43).

When Yaakov defended his actions, he told Yosef (48:19), "I know that the elder will be great, but the younger will be even greater". Rashi explains that this referred to the respective descendants of Menashe and Efraim, namely Gidon and Yehishua. The Netziv added that Gidon was a warrior, succeeding in worldly pursuits, whereas Yehoshua was primarily a Torah scholar and teacher, excelling in spiritual matters.

II

A fundamental difference between the worldly and spiritual realms is reflected in these biblical personalities. To succeed in worldly affairs - diplomatic, military, technological, and financial - one must always respond to changing realities. Innovation is a prerequisite for overcoming new challenges in physical matters. New strategies, weapons, technologies, and careers are appropriate, and necessary, in order to succeed.

By contrast, spiritual accomplishment demands fealty to ancient tradition. Both in study and practice, the Torah Jew is guided by the law given by Hashem at Sinai thousands of years ago. Even novel interpretations are attempts to understand that revelation, and were initially given at Sinai.

Gidon overcame a more powerful army by devising a new strategy. In making a great noise by sounding shofars and breaking jugs, his small force fooled the enemy into flight and they were defeated (Shoftim 7:19-22). Wars must be fought with new weapons and strategies to confound the foe. This individual innovation was referred to as "this strength of yours" which Hashem gave Gidon to save Am Yisroel(6:14).

Yehoshua was the loyal disciple of Moshe, the one to whom Moshe transmitted the Torah he had received at Sinai. Moshe's face was like the sun, and Yehoshua's like the moon (Baba Basra, 75a). Yehoshua's goal was to reflect the radiance of his master Moshe, as the moon reflects the light of the sun. He was chosen for spiritual leadership because of his dedication to his rebbe and tradition, and his aversion to innovation in the study and practice of Torah.

These ideas resonate not only in the personalities of the great descendants of these shvatim, but in the very name of their forebears as well. The name Menashe is based on "nashani" (41:51), the root of which means to forget (Rashi 32:33), or to move away. In the worldly area in which Menashe excelled, one must forget old ideas and move to deal with new realities.

The name Efraim comes from "hifrani" (41:52), which means He has made me fruitful. Just as a fruit is a replica of the previous ones grown on that tree, so does spiritual greatness and leadership require preserving the immortal tradition of previous generations.

III

The Medrash Tanchuma (Naso 29) states: A person should not say, "I will not fulfill rabbinic commandments, such as Ner Chanukah, since they are not in the Torah itself." In fact, Hashem agrees with these enactments. The proof is that Yaakov placed Efraim before Menashe, and Hashem confirmed this order by the fact that Efraim's offering preceded Menashe's.

The enigmatic connection between rabbinic mitzvos and the precedence of Efraim can be explained based on the above. Klal Yisroel's healthy aversion to new mitzvos might lead to the rejection of Ner Chanukah. Only if Hashem approves will the new commandment be followed.

Yaakov's reversal of the order was a bold and questionable spiritual decision, and yet Hashem confirmed it. Change for its own sake is objectionable, but when instituted by great leaders who normally abhor innovation, it must be embraced by Am Yisroel, just as it is endorsed by Hashem.

Unusual circumstances led Yaakov to bless Efraim first, and led Chazal to institute Ner Chanukah. But the connection is deeper. The very name Efraim requires loyalty to old tradition and resistance to spiritual change. Only one whose conservative bias to preserve ancient laws and customs is fully developed can be trusted to make the occasional change warranted by a new situation.

By placing Efraim first, Yaakov demonstrated not only the priority of spirituality, but also the need to adhere to the traditional Torah way, changing only when necessary. When Hashem confirmed the reordering, He provided guidelines for Halachic leadership and innovation for all generations, and the basis for the acceptance of Ner Chanukah. Hopefully, those loyal to Torah will find and follow rabbinic leaders who will strike the proper balance between tradition and innovation.

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